What is 1.55 million square kilometres large, home to emperor penguins, humpback whales and leopard seals, and is located in the Southern Ocean just off Antarctica? Answer: the Ross Sea, named after 19th century explorer James Ross – and soon to become the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA).
‘This is a very big moment in the history of conservation,’ writes Lewis Pugh, endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans. Pugh led a two-year campaign calling for the instigation of the Ross Sea MPA, including such extreme awareness-raising stunts as diving on three occasions into the freezing Ross Sea for a swim. He also spent much of those two years ‘shuttling back and forth to Russia’ in order to meet Russian officials and persuade them not to veto the creation of the Ross Sea MPA – something Russia had done on five previous occasions.
“Today’s announcement shows that Antarctica continues to be a place for peace and bridge building, a place where we can find common ground”
In recognition, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) recently met in Hobart, Australia, and took the decision to grant MPA status to the Ross Sea, an act that will come into force in December 2017. As Pugh points out, at a size that is larger than the UK, France, Germany and Italy combined, it becomes the largest such MPA in the world. 72 per cent of the area will become a ‘no-take’ zone – where all fishing is forbidden – while other sections will permit some harvesting of fish and krill for scientific research.
‘My hope is that we can create a series of MPAs in other critical areas around Antarctica including the Weddell Sea, the Antarctic Peninsula and East Antarctica,’ continues Pugh, who is keen to stress the significance of Russia, the EU and the US all agreeing on this decision, even at a time of geopolitical tension. ‘In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Antarctica was set aside as place for peace and science. Today’s announcement shows that Antarctica continues to be a place for peace and bridge-building, a place where we can find common ground.’
‘This decision represents an almost unprecedented level of international cooperation regarding a large marine ecosystem comprising important benthic and pelagic habitats,’ says Andrew Wright, CCAMLR’s Executive Secretary. ‘A number of details regarding the MPA are yet to be finalised, but the establishment of the protected zone is in no doubt and we are incredibly proud to have reached this point.’