Thanks to New Zealand and the United States, the world’s largest marine park will be created in the Southern Ocean.
Over 1.5m sq km of the Ross Sea around Antarctica will be protected under the agreement between the 25 countries which control the continent, including Australia and New Zealand, and the European Union. The deal was devised by New Zealand and the US.
Some 1.1m sq km – an area about the size of France and Spain – will be set aside as a general protection zone where no fishing will be allowed.
But significantly, the protections are set to expire in 35 years.
The agreement came after two weeks of discussions between delegates at the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in Hobart. It follows five years of failed negotiations.
The protections had been urgently sought because of the importance of the Southern Ocean to the entire world’s natural resources.
For example, scientists estimate the ocean produces about three-quarters of the nutrients that sustain life in the rest of the world’s oceans. The region is also home to most of the world’s penguins and whales.
The Ross Sea is a deep bay in the Southern Ocean that many scientists consider to be the last intact marine ecosystem on Earth – a living laboratory ideally suited for investigating life in the Antarctic and how climate change is affecting the planet.
The protections will not decrease the total amount of fish allowed to be caught in the Ross Sea, but will move the industry away from the most crucial habitats close to the continent.
Russia catches antarctic toothfish there and the changes will push its fleet into waters where they will catch fewer immature fish, and where they won’t compete with as many orcas, which rely on toothfish for food.
The agreement also establishes a 322,000 sq km “krill research zone” that will allow research catching of krill but prohibit sawfish catching.
A 110,000 sq km “special research zone” will be established on the outside of the no-take zone, allowing catching of krill and sawfish for research only.
“Today’s agreement is a turning point for the protection of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean,” said Chris Johnson, WWF-Australia ocean science manager.
“This is important not just for the incredible diversity of life that it will protect, but also for the contribution it makes to building the resilience of the world’s ocean in the face of climate change.”
The 35-year limit was a significant compromise, designed to counter opposition from China and Russia which have fishing industries in the region.
The new sanctuary could mean New Zealand is required to increase its monitoring of the Antarctic region for illegal fishing. The Royal New Zealand Navy conducts annual patrols of the Southern Ocean.
Especially excited with the decision was Philippa Ross, the great-great-great-granddaughter of explorer Sir James Ross, after whom the sea is named.
“It’s massive,” said Ross, who visited the Ross Sea with her uncle in February.
“I always held hope in my heart, and it had been a promising last couple of weeks. I know how much work has been done behind the scenes.”
Ross said she hoped people were starting to realise that humankind should have no reign over nature.