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Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

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Mykines Lighthouse, Faroe Islands

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Journey to the Ross Sea #3

At a meeting in Hobart, Australia last year a golden opportunity was once again thrown away to afford the Ross Sea meaningful, permanent protection from the ever increasing influence of man in that region – particularly through overfishing. This was the fourth time that the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a fishery management and conservation body, failed to reach consensus from member states. In 2013, Russia was the spanner in the works – in 2014 China joined them in vetoing the proposal. For any proposal to pass all 24 member countries and the EU must vote unanimously.  Commentators suggest that political issues far, far away from this fragile, pristine wilderness scuppered the 2014 vote as the proposal came to the table at a heightened time of Russia’s troubles with the US and Europe. It will now be another year before CCAMLR meets again to decide the fate of the Ross Sea.

It is just twenty short years since the first vessel from New Zealand went down to the Ross Sea in search of new fishing grounds.  There they discovered the highly-prized Antarctic toothfish which is marketed as Chilean Sea Bass and sold to upmarket hotels and restaurants around the world.  Today, that fishery involves over a dozen different nations and removes 3,300 tonnes of toothfish each year.  What those early fishing expeditions didn’t realise was that the toothfish is a key predator in this region’s ecosystem.  Removing such large numbers of a slow to reproduce species that can grow up to 2 metres in length, weigh 140 kilograms and live to be 50 years old, is unsustainable and will only accelerate the destruction of the region’s natural balance.  Toothfish are also the main prey of an ecotype of orca known as the Ross Sea (or Type C) orca and scientists have already noticed a decline in the presence of this species here.

For many, the very fact that commercial fishing is allowed in this region undermines the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty which came into force in 1961 and was implemented to ensure comprehensive conservation of the Antarctic environment and set aside the continent as a scientific reserve.

Solid science is in our favour. Studies elsewhere have consistently demonstrated that industrial scale exploitation of large, deep-sea predatory fish has repeatedly proved unsustainable, resulting in collapse. This fishery is the most urgent threat currently facing the Ross Sea and there is no reason to doubt that if it isn’t protected right now that this jewel of the Southern Ocean will suffer a similar fate.

CCAMLR has shown good form in previous initiatives including strong conservation measures focusing on seabird bycatch and the krill fishery but in order to maintain its credibility it needs to find a way through the current impasse affecting the issue of Ross Sea protection. There is hope however, as Russia has recently partnered with Germany in proposing the Weddell Sea, a region just off the Antarctic Peninsula, as a Marine Protected Area and so any reservations or geopolitical hidden agendas must be tackled in time for the 2015 vote.

This is the Last Ocean; the most pristine marine environment on the planet. We must seize this opportunity to protect  the last remaining oceanic ecosystem that is  driven by natural rather than human forces.

WDC joins with the Antarctic Ocean Alliance in recommending that CCAMLR establish a fully protected marine reserve in the Ross Sea region as a first step to establishing a comprehensive network of MPAs and marine reserves around Antarctica.