Talks fail again to agree protection of vast Antarctic marine regions

Published 10:10 on October 28, 2023  /  Last updated at 08:29 on October 30, 2023  / Stian Reklev /  Biodiversity, International

Two weeks of negotiations among the almost 30 member nations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) ended Friday evening in Hobart, Australia with a fresh failure to establish three marine protected areas (MPAs) in the region representing more than 1% of the global ocean.

Two weeks of negotiations among the almost 30 member nations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) ended Friday evening in Hobart, Australia with a fresh failure to establish three marine protected areas (MPAs) in the region representing more than 1% of the global ocean.

Twenty-six nations plus the EU have attempted to agree on MPAs across the Antarctic region since 2010, with China, Russia, and fishery interests proving the main obstacles to success, according to observers.

Three specific MPA proposals covering almost 4 million square kilometres (sq. km) have been on the table since 2017, but negotiators in Hobart could only agree to try again next year.

“Short-term, short-sighted fisheries interests keep on trumping long-term conservation needs,” Jehki Harkonen, an ocean policy advisor with Greenpeace International, said in a press release issued by NGO coalition the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC).

“If we aren’t even able to protect key fish breeding grounds, which aligns with both the international goals to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 as well as the growth of new fish populations, an aspect of interest to the fishing industry, then we’re not only endangering Antarctic ecosystems but also common sense,” Harkonen said.

Observer groups approached the latest talks with a heightened sense of urgency amid reports of fresh record low levels of sea ice in the Antarctica and news that avian influenza – bird flu – has reached the region.

Reports in August that thousands of emperor penguin chicks died as the sea ice melted made headlines worldwide in August, with some 10,000 birds estimated to have drowned or frozen to death.

KRILLING IT

Antarctic krill remains one of the thorniest issues of negotiation.

The tiny crustaceans are a staple food for a number of marine species and almost the exclusive item on the menu for blue whales and some types of sea birds.

However, they are also attractive for fisheries, with krill factory fishing quadrupling over 2007-22 to 415,500 tonnes, according to ASOC.

Negotiators in Hobart did agree on some initiatives to improve krill management, including holding a symposium in July next year that will consider the possibility of establishing a western Antarctic Peninsula MPA.

“With the agreement to couple the designation of the MPA in the Antarctic Peninsula with updated krill fishery management, members will ensure that all of the critical services krill provide to the planet, including carbon sequestration, remain intact, and that krill remain at a healthy population level so that predators can too,” said Andrea Kavanagh, director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean conservation work for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.

“What’s disappointing is the lack of action to establish the network of MPAs that CCAMLR committed to in 2011. CCAMLR has delayed MPA designations for seven years. It is clear that members are requiring less science to keep fisheries open than they are to secure protections that are badly needed to protect this spectacular region and the animals that call it home.”

The CCAMLR talks also approved a proposal from Norway to expand one of the proposed MPAs – Weddell Sea Phase 2 – by 720,000 sq. km, which would take the total size of all three protected areas above 4.5 mln sq. km.

“However, there was once again push-back on concrete measures to protect vulnerable features such as the world’s largest known nesting ground of icefish, containing roughly 60 million icefish, that was discovered last year by German scientists,” ASOC said.

Under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), some 200 nations have committed to protect 30% of global marine areas by 2030.

The three proposed MPAs under CCAMLR alone would contribute to nearly 4% of that total target.

FRENCH HOPE

Conservationists are now pinning their hopes on the One Planet Polar Summit, to be hosted by France on Nov. 8-10 at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

That meeting will bring together scientists and NGOs as well as the political leaderships of many polar region countries as well as the French president.

“I really hope this summit kicks off an era of accelerated conservation action that outpaces the melting of Antarctic ice,” said Claire Christian, ASOC executive director.

“It feels like we are taking one step forward and two steps back on Antarctic marine protection. While there is some consolation that key conservation measures have not been rolled back, CCAMLR’s continual treading of water and holding onto the status quo falls short of the ambitious responses needed to address the climate and biodiversity crises.”

By Stian Reklev – stian@carbon-pulse.com

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