Proposals are underway for a 1.8 million square kilometre reserve that would ban all fishing in a vast area of the Weddell Sea and around the Antarctic Peninsula, protecting many species such as emperor penguins, blue whales and leopard seals that call the ice and waters their home.
The sanctuary already has the support of several countries including the UK and the plans will go before a conference of the Antarctic nations in October. The idea, which is now backed by a new Greenpeace campaign and Antarctic expedition, was originally proposed by the EU and spearheaded by Germany.
‘The Weddell Sea is one of the last practically pristine regions in Antarctica. The international fishing fleet has so far steered clear of this area. To ensure things stay that way, we must place the majority of the marine areas of interest to fisheries in this region under protection,’ said Christian Schmidt, German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, when submitting the request. ‘Commercial fisheries would pose a major threat to the vulnerable populations of the approximately 14,000 animal species in the Weddell Sea. The marine protected area should be reserved for scientific research purposes only and should strengthen international cooperation in this region. These are the pillars of the Antarctic Treaty. It is our historical task to protect unique ecosystems like Antarctica.’
The scientific basis for Germany’s request was provided by researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), who collected and evaluated data from the Weddell Sea over the last four years.
‘Our studies show that climate change has so far had little impact on this marine region,’ explained Prof Dr Karin Lochte, director of the AWI. ‘The region is also a valuable reference area for basic scientific research. We are therefore very interested in ensuring that future research in this unique and largely pristine area is not jeopardised by destructive human activities.’
The Weddell Sea extends from the southeast of South America over an area of around 2.8 million square kilometres. Since its discovery in 1823, impassable ice has made commercial fishing almost impossible, leaving the area largely untouched. The harsh environment has lead to unique adaptation in some of the native species, for example the thornfish produces ‘antifreeze’ proteins to prevent its blood from freezing. The Weddell sea is also an important habitat for more than 300,000 pairs of Antarctic petrels that breed close to its coasts, and one third of all emperor penguins are born on the region’s sea ice. According to the AWI, Scientists have so far documented six seal species and 12whale species in the area, the best-known being the humpback whales, orcas, blue whales and Antarctic minke whales.
Protecting these animals, already threatened by the creeping effects of climate change, from commercial fishing and hunting is one of the driving forces of the sanctuary, and Greenpeace has recently thrown its weight behind the proposal.
‘Everywhere our oceans are properly protected we see more animals, bigger animals, more diversity, and spillover benefits outside the sanctuary boundaries,’ says Will McCallum of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign. ‘Many marine animals are suffering from the impacts of climate change, pollution and overfishing. Ocean sanctuaries provide relief and resilience for wildlife and ecosystems to recover. Sanctuaries encourage vital biodiversity, provide food security for the billions of people that rely on our oceans, and are essential to tackling climate change. Our fate and the fate of our oceans are intimately connected.’
A three-month Greenpeace expedition which set off at the beginning of the year aims to see the first ever humans visit the sea floor of the Weddell Sea in submersibles. By identifying new species and Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs) on the seafloor, including rare corals and sponges, it hopes to provide further evidence for the need for comprehensive protection of the area, which can then be put forward to the Antarctic Ocean Commission’s (CCAMLR) scientific committee.
‘There is currently huge momentum behind large-scale ocean protection, so we’re really optimistic that governments have not only the opportunity to create this sanctuary but growing public support to do so,’ says McCallum. ‘Hundreds of thousands of people have already backed the calls for a sanctuary, and we’re just getting started. We’ve already seen that CCAMLR agreed a huge marine reserve in the Ross Sea, which came into force in December 2017.’
Despite some momentum and growing support for the sanctuary, the proposal needs unanimous approval from the 24 member states of CCAMLR, and should it pass it’s still unclear exactly how the huge reserve would be enforced.
‘It is the responsibility of the Antarctic governance body, CCAMLR, to monitor and enforce any conservation measures,’ suggest McCallum. ‘How it does this will vary depending on the specifics of the agreement, but should include traditional patrols, satellite technology, relying on other industry players to hold each other to account and individual country intelligence.’
McCallum and Greenpeace remain optimistic, and believe that the decision in October could be just the beginning for increased ocean conservation. ‘We can use a victory for the oceans in the Antarctic to build momentum for protection in many other areas of international waters as the UN negotiates an Ocean Treaty,’ he says. ‘This is about a journey towards protecting half the planet, and it starts in the Antarctic.’
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