Two countries ignore scale of biodiversity crisis by thwarting progress needed to protect Antarctica’s ocean

Two countries ignore scale of biodiversity crisis by thwarting progress needed to protect Antarctica’s ocean

Hobart, 4th November 2022

Today the international body responsible for safeguarding Antarctica’s waters finished its annual meeting with a mixed bag in terms of progress to protect marine life in the region. The 27 members that make up the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) identified further vulnerable areas and committed to conduct more science on the impact of the krill fishery but failed to agree to put in place large-scale marine protection and stronger fishery measures.

Conservationists have become increasingly frustrated with CCAMLR’s continued lack of meaningful action to increase protection of the Southern Ocean to match the growing climate and biodiversity crises.  We continue to experience resistance in CCAMLR to meaningful conservation measures on MPAs. A small step in the right direction has been a resolution acknowledging the impact of climate change. But, effective protection of the world’s last great wilderness is still overdue and there is no basis, scientific or otherwise, for a small minority of countries to delay ” said Claire Christian, Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. 

Science has shown that protecting large marine areas helps build resilience to the accelerating changes in the region due to the climate crisis. However, once again member governments failed to come to the consensus needed to protect the critical habitats and marine life found in three large areas in the East Antarctic, Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula. Despite clear scientific advice and support from all but two countries, the meeting also failed to agree to protect the world’s largest known nesting ground of icefish, containing roughly 60 million nests, that was discovered earlier this year by German scientists from Alfred-Wegener-Institut.

The positive news is that CCAMLR added eight new areas to its list of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) which means no fishing using gear that contacts the seafloor will be allowed in those areas. VMEs are seafloor areas with species, including sponges and corals, that are highly vulnerable to disturbance. Seven of the eight VMEs were identified on a Greenpeace expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula earlier in the year.

Dr Laura Meller of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said: “It is wonderful that we have been able to fast track protection for these small universes unlike anywhere else on the planet. Meanwhile, it is disappointing that CCAMLR is yet again delaying action at the scale needed to match the climate and ocean crisis. They have proposals gathering dust on their desks that would create 4 million square kilometres of ocean sanctuaries in Antarctic waters. That’s the scale of protection necessary to get on track with protecting at least 30% of the oceans by 2030, but they continue failing to deliver on their mandate.”

Governments also agreed to retain a key krill fishery measure (CM 51-07) designed to avoid concentrated krill fishing that competes with Antarctic wildlife in their key feeding grounds. As this current measure has not been sufficient to stop concentrated fishing, CCAMLR has been developing the science needed to underpin an even stronger measure. While a new measure was not agreed at this year’s meeting, a commitment was made to conduct new science to monitor any changes to the krill population and ecosystem that could result from changes to management and growth of the fishery. Also, for the first time, serious discussions were had on how to harmonize the krill fishery management with the proposed Antarctic Peninsula MPA, indicating an important step towards protection of this area in the future.

“The importance of krill in the Southern Ocean cannot be overstated,”said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean work. “With the renewal of the krill conservation measure and the commitment to a new, more precautionary approach that incorporates the Antarctic Peninsula MPA, CCAMLR has shown that it agrees. These new management tactics will preserve the region’s rich biodiversity while CCAMLR completes additional work to ensure that enough krill remain in the water for all the wildlife that depend on it. But while the krill conservation measure is a good first step, new evidence underscores that the best precautionary approach to Southern Ocean conservation couples ecosystem-based fishery management and marine protected areas.”

 “At this year’s meeting, CCAMLR celebrated the grim milestone of being 10 years past its own deadline for designating a Southern Ocean network of MPAs. During this decade of inaction, a growing body of science has repeatedly emphasized the need for conservation action in the Antarctic.” Kavanagh concluded  “CCAMLR now needs to make good on its 2011 commitment and start adding MPAs to the agreed-upon network. The world can’t afford to hear ‘no new marine protections in the Southern Ocean’ for one more year.”

“Antarctic krill contribute to the global carbon cycle with krill storing millions of tonnes of carbon annually and they are a key species of the Antarctic marine food web. As the climate change further warms the Southern Ocean and sea ice melts, we may see catastrophic impacts on krill with rippling effects on the iconic species that depend on them as prey – whales, penguins, seabirds, seals, and fish. CCAMLR must prioritize conservation over harvesting, and deliver on their commitment to designate MPAs along with stronger and more precautionary krill fisheries management. The time for action is now.”, said Emily Grilly, Antarctic Conservation Manager at WWF.

Notes to editors

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) is a coalition of conservation organizations from around the world that defends the integrity of Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems from encroaching human activities. Its mission is to protect the Antarctic and Southern Ocean’s unique and vulnerable ecosystems by providing the unified voice of the NGO community.

CCAMLR: The 41st meeting of CCAMLR took place from 24 October-4 November 2022. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established under the Antarctic Treaty System to preserve the biodiversity of the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR is a consensus-based organization consisting of 27 Members, including the EU and eight of its Member States. CCAMLR’s mandate includes fisheries management based on the ecosystem approach, the protection of Antarctic nature and the creation of vast marine protected areas allowing the ocean to increase the resilience to climate change.

In 2009, CCAMLR member countries began to undertake their responsibilities to establish a network of MPAs throughout the Southern Ocean and established the first high seas MPA on the southern shelf of the South Orkney Islands. In 2016 the world’s largest MPA was agreed in the Ross Sea (proposed by the United States & New Zealand; 2.02 million km2).

Currently, there are three proposals for the creation of new MPAs in the Southern Ocean. Two proposed by the EU and its member states, together with Australia, Norway, Uruguay, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India, South Korea and Ukraine: East Antarctic with 0.95 million km2, the Weddell Sea – 2.18 million km2; The Antarctic Peninsula: from Argentina and Chile-about 0.65 million km2.

The protection of these three large areas would safeguard nearly 4 million km2 of Antarctica’s ocean. That is roughly the size of the EU and represents 1% of the global ocean. Together this would secure the largest act of ocean protection in history.

VMEs and Greenpeace: The seven new VMEs were documented for the first time during submarine dives conducted from the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in February and March 2022. The research was led by Dr. Susanne Lockhart of California Academy of Sciences in collaboration with Greenpeace. The new VMEs are clustered around the Antarctic Sound, off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The locations are spectacularly diverse in sponges and corals, showing the complexity and abundant biodiversity that can be found on the Antarctic seabed. The seven Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems documented on Greenpeace’s expedition are in Active Sound, Bransfield Strait, and by Tabarin Peninsula, Vega Island, Corry Island (x2) and Vortex Island .