New Ross Sea Marine Protected Area

Mar 20, 2017 General Interest ,News

The announcement of the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area came from CCAMLR – Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources – a group of countries working together since 1982 to bring scientifically-based regulation into what could otherwise become a watery Wild West.

CCAMLR has 24 member nations (plus the EU) who come together annually in Hobart to thrash out complex regulations. They include nations such as Argentina, USA, Russia, Ukraine, China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and even Namibia. The eight EU members – which include the UK until Brexit – always vote as a bloc.



Since its formation in 1982 CCAMLR has accomplished much. It’s established various fishing zones with strict catch limits. A key development was the Antarctic Treaty signed by its member nations in 1991. Widely regarded as a major coup for conservation, this banned the commercial exploitation of resources around the continent’s land and ice shelves south of the 60th parallel.

More recently, a raft of measures has now almost completely stamped out the IUU (illegal unreported
unregulated) fishing activities which threatened the very survival of Patagonian toothfish populations barely a decade ago.

But CCAMLR’s crowning achievement is the new Ross Sea Marine Protected Area (MPA). As a signal to the world, it is exciting proof that there may yet be some hope for the world’s rapidly declining fish-stocks. This huge MPA is located in what’s widely referred to as the Last Ocean – the world’s last supposedly unspoiled patch of seawater, the Ross Sea, dividing West Antarctica from the much larger East.

The Ross Sea’s been the key domain of US and NZ marine scientific activities for decades. The Kiwis and Americans have a symbiotic relationship at McMurdo Sound: the Americans provide icebreakers and aircraft while New Zealand provides Christchurch airport as a logistical launch-pad for supply activities.



Conservationists – including many of the McMurdo Sound biologists and the Kiwi-based ‘Last Ocean’
organisation – have been lobbying heavily for years to establish a three million square kilometre no-take zone from the Ross Sea right out to the continental shelf.

But it’s taken four years of political bargaining to achieve a compromised MPA of 1.55 million km2. Much of the argy-bargy has been behind closed doors, but New Zealand and the USA laid out two very different initial proposals, ironically with the blessing of our big three fishing corporations which had become alarmed at the numbers of ‘foreign-flagged’ vessels homing in on their patch.

Not surprisingly, the last two member nations still dragging their heels as the MPA became progressively watered down, were China and the Russian Federation, both strongly committed to securing a significant share of global resources.

By the opening of the 2016 meeting, China had made an abrupt about-face, expounding a conservationist approach to many global policies, and Russia alone remained as the final stumbling block, with conspiracy theories abounding. So Vasily Titushkin’s unexpectedly abrupt acquiescence at the outset of negotiations caught all representatives by enraptured surprise.

As can be expected diehard conservationists have expressed cynicism. A quarter of the MPA is unfishable anyway (under permanent ice-shelves), while the entire north-east slope to the continental shelf remains open for business.



A sizeable rectangle near the entrance to the sea has been designated as a ‘Special Research Zone’ allowing controlled fishing of Antarctic toothfish and krill. And a large sector of shelf to the west of the Ross Sea has been added as a Krill Research Zone. But marine biologists remain ecstatic that several key seamounts and especially the treasured Balleny Islands are strictly off limits to any takers. It sets an enormous precedent.

It is easy to be cynical, but without comprehending the complexities of ecosystem integrity, we need to be open-minded. The Last Ocean may not be the totally pristine sea that purists envisage, but it is now genuinely being conserved. The objective of creating a set of four huge MPAs in Treaty waters now appears distinctly achievable.



Two marine resources are specifically outside CCAMLR’s jurisdiction – whales and seals. Their fates
are separately catered for by the IWC (International Whaling Commission) and the CCAS (Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals).

Luckily for the seals, a general agreement leaves them virtually untouched. The IWC has its finger in many more pies than the Southern Ocean, but a squabble over Japan’s so-called scientific whale-slaughter programme in Treaty waters is currently a major focus.



The IWC’s usually viewed as a benign body with the whales’ best interests at heart. This perception comes from the 1986 Temporary Whaling Moratorium. Its aim? To allow stocks to recover before the resumption of whaling (excluding traditional, subsistence whaling). It was originally founded to regulate whaling, not ban it.

At IWC’s annual meeting in Slovenia last October, a constitutional coup was initiated by the powerful
conservation-minded member nations, passing (by two-thirds majority) a motion to re-word Article VIII (the substance behind Japan’s whaling programme) and uphold a World Court ruling against the programme.

Most pundits see this as a significant shift in favour of ongoing whale-protection rather than management of resumed whaling operations. The membership has been polarised for some years now.

The pro-whaling bloc – Norway, Iceland, Russia and, of course, Japan – has been boosted in recent years by a variety of tiny underdeveloped nations – shortly after they mysteriously receiving large dollops of foreign aid from undisclosed sources. Pitted against this bloc is the anti-whaling lobby led by Australia, NZ, USA, along with most European and Latin American nations.

Since the 1986 Moratorium, whale populations have recovered at varying rates around the globe. More significantly, popular perception has steadily changed in many countries. Whale-watching has become a multi-million dollar industry as whales become more comfortable about interacting with humans.

Japan’s powerful fishing lobby, though, has close friends in its government (yes, whales are classified as fish in such circles). The government ordered the creation of a scientific reason for the lethal inspection of whale internal organs, and (to prevent waste, of course) to bring back the carcasses for general consumption. This was to be carried out under Article VIII of the IWC convention which allowed member nations to self-issue whaling permits for research purposes.

When international relations become strained over specific issues, a measure of politeness should be maintained. So Australian diplomats continued to bow and drink green tea with their Japanese counterparts while discussing various subjects of mutual agreement, while the scientists commenced a protracted World Court action against Japanese whaling.

The Australian case (supported by New Zealand) pivoted on whether Japan’s programme was genuinely for the purpose of scientific research. It argued that Japan had put the cart before the horse. All science must begin with a hypothesis, which then leads to a thorough investigation and a conclusion.

Japan began with a conclusion (whale meat) and worked backwards to cook up a hypothesis. In addition, the Australians argued, there was not a jot of the lethal so-called research which had not already been achieved through non-lethal means.

Humpback whale_cmyk (Small)

The court found in favour of the plaintiff. Japan’s national pride was covered in egg. Its indignant government initially agreed to abide by the World Court’s ruling on its JARPA II programme, but the following year it created another ‘research’ excuse – the NEW REP A – and withdrew its recognition of the World Court’s authority to adjudicate on any further scientific matters.

And there was another twist. Australia’s then Tory Prime Minsiter, Tony Abbott, had cozied up to his Japanese counterpart over a free trade deal and removed the heat from Japanese whaling. The Australian public were both perplexed and outraged at its new government’s blatant inaction when the whaling resumed.

Australia’s recently triumphant IWC representatives were now sitting on their hands. The hoped-for naval surveillance fleet failed to eventuate. Instead, the public poured funds into Sea Shepherd’s small fleet as it re-provisioned in Hobart while the Green Party vented its spleen in the Senate.

In rational terms, the slaughter of minke whales in Antarctic waters has little environmental impact. The huge population of this species can statistically cope with the loss of the 10,000 that Japan claims it needs for science.

But the admission that of the 333 whales harpooned in this year’s take, 200 were pregnant females, has generated an emotive response rather than a rational one. The outrage was heightened by a leaked document which proved that international humanitarian donations for tsunami relief had been siphoned off to aid the whaling fleet in 2013.

Whaling is now a subject which transcends rationality. A whale is not a fish which simply spreads its eggs by the thousand to be fertilised and left untended. It is a mammal which gestates its calf over many months and nurses it to adulthood over years. For much of the world the principle is now compassion, not resource management.

Whale-watching operators on Australia’s East Coast can begin to sleep easier now. Their humpbacks, which provide their livelihood while making each annual journey south to their summer feeding grounds around the Ross Sea’s Balleny Islands, will likely be spared the harpoon, despite Japan’s stated intention to include this species in future harvesting.

WWF Diag original_cmyk (Small)

Although the new MPA in The Last Ocean does not protect these whales, the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary (south of 40-degrees, agreed to by the IWC years ago) is several steps closer to being enforceable now that the IWC has turned up the blowtorch on Japan.

If the spirit of international cooperation in conservation matters is truly on the increase, perhaps the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fisheries has been a lesson worth learning. But who knows what the future will bring?

The Last Ocean’s reprieve is probably temporary. When the MPA expires in 35 years (2052), it will take another unanimous agreement to re-instate it. By then the world may have a very different political landscape, and those toothfish may have rather less ice for procreating.