Global governments agreed on Friday to create the world's largest marine sanctuary in an area described as the planet's most pristine marine ecosystem—Antarctica's Ross Sea.
"This is a victory for the whales, toothfish, and penguins that live in the Ross Sea, as well as for the millions of people who supported this effort," said John Hocevar, a marine biologist with Greenpeace.
According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the decision offers "further proof that the world is finally beginning to understand the urgency of the threats facing our planet." The U.S. and New Zealand had put forth the proposal.
The decision from the 25-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR ) followed years of campaigning and "years of diplomatic wrangling and high-level talks between the U.S. and Russia, which has rejected the idea in the past," the Associated Press reports.
Roughly 1.55 million square kilometers (600,000 square miles)—more than twice the size of Texas—will be afforded protections for 35 years starting December 2017, with all fishing banned on 72 percent of the area.
The 35-year limit, the Guardian reports, was the result of "opposition from China and Russia which have fishing industries in the region." Still, the move met widespread praise from conservation groups.
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The "CCAMLR made history" with the decision, said Andrea Kavanagh, director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
"This landmark decision represents the first time that nations have agreed to protect a huge area of the ocean that lies beyond the jurisdiction of any individual country and shows that CCAMLR takes its role as protector of Antarctic waters seriously," her statement continued.
While Mike Walker, project director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, welcomed the announcement, he said world leaders must commit to further protections.
"The limited 35-year restriction for protection of the Ross Sea contradicts the scientific advice that marine protection should be long-term," he said. "Nevertheless, we are confident that the significant benefits of protecting the Southern Ocean will soon be clear and the international community will act to safeguard this special place long into the future."
For filmmaker Peter Young, director of The Last Ocean, the creation of the marine reserve offers "a ray of hope for humanity."
He told the New Zealand Herald, "The Southern Ocean affects all of the oceans, and it's the oceans that connect all of us; without life in the ocean, there is no life, full stop."