Home to vitally important populations of Emperor and Adélie penguins, Weddell, Crabeater and Leopard seals as well as significant numbers of Minke whales, Killer whales and sea birds, the Ross Sea is set to receive protection from commercial fishing for 35 years.
Long touted by IUCN and other environmental organisations as an area of critical scientific and ecological importance, protection for this unique continental shelf comes after long years of negotiation between state members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Australia. The proposal developed by the US and New Zealand has gone through many versions before it was finally agreed by all the 24 state members of CCAMLR and the EU. The active engagement of all the countries holding a sceptical view on the Antarctic MPA will be critical in continuing to roll out the network of MPAs desired by most of IUCNs members, both governments and NGOs.
The area under protection, at 1.55 million square kilometres or roughly 4 times the size of Norway, will include research zones covering 28% of its area whilst the rest will be strictly no-take, the strongest form of marine protection available. Two seamounts, unwater volcanoes that provide vital foraging areas and habitat for a variety of marine species, will be part of the protected area.
Participating at the Commission meeting, IUCN's Global Marine and Polar Programme Director Carl Gustaf Lundin said: "Protection for the Ross Sea is part of what IUCN members were calling for at the recent World Conservation Congress in Hawaii. Most of this area is in very good shape and in some ways this is the last ocean in the world that has not been significantly impacted by humans."
"This is a great day for Antarctic biodiversity.” Lundin added. “The fact that the Ross Sea protected area falls in international waters raises hopes that similar treaties can be ratified for other hotspots of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The ongoing negotiations on an implementing agreement to the Law of the Sea, should not see this as an indication that protection should be time-limited, MPAs are for perpetuity.”
Among the other positive environmental outcomes in Hobart, the fishing of krill was limited for a further five years. Krill form the primary food source for a variety of marine birds and mammals, including penguins, whales and seals.
The Ross Sea is one of the Earth's last pristine areas, still relatively unscathed by human activities. The new protection will come into force on December 1st, 2017.