Future of Antarctic Marine Protected Areas at Risk

Efforts to adopt effective marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean, a global commons containing the world’s most pristine marine ecosystems, are being thwarted by political infighting and fishing interests.

Emperor Penguin and Ice breaker

Antarctica’s surrounding waters are home to some of the healthiest marine ecosystems on Earth and support thriving populations of krill, seabirds, fish and whales. But efforts to establish a network of effective Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean are being hobbled by political infighting and demands that prioritize fishing interests over conservation by members of the international consortium tasked with conserving the region, Stanford scientists say.

The findings, published Oct. 14 in Science, come as 24 countries and the European Union convene in Hobart, Australia, next week for the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), to resume negotiations of Southern Ocean MPAs.

“Our research shows that CCAMLR’s positions for and against MPAs have become entrenched,” said lead author Cassandra Brooks, a PhD candidate at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “Negotiations have become entangled with larger global geopolitics and we see an emerging scramble for marine resources in this remote frontier.”

The authors argue that as a leader in international fisheries management, CCAMLR has the opportunity to set an example for ongoing negotiations at the United Nations level to develop a legal instrument for conserving biodiversity in international waters, also known as the high seas. If CCAMLR continues to fail in its duties, however, it could set a dangerous legal precedent with ramifications for MPAs in other parts of the world, said study co-author Kristina Gjerde, a legal scholar at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It would send the message that fishing interests trump conservation, despite the global interests at stake,” Gjerde said. “It could raise doubts that nations will be able to set aside short-term national interests to confront global ocean challenges stemming from accelerating climate change. And finally, it is doubtful that these diminished sites would count toward global goals for MPAs as they would not meet the IUCN MPA criteria.”

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