Story | 07 Nov, 2016

Antarctic Ocean breakthrough: Ross Sea to become world's largest marine protection area

The Ross Sea, considered by many scientists as the last intact marine ecosystem on the planet, is the first protected area in Antarctica, and home to most of the world’s penguins and many species of whale.

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Photo: © John Weller

The area under protection, at 1.55 million square kilometres, or roughly the same size as Mongolia, 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, underwater volcanoes that provide vital foraging areas and habitat for a variety of marine species, will be part of the protected area.

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, who met in Hobart, Australia, in October 2016 . The original proposal developed by the US and New Zealand had gone through many versions before it was finally agreed by all the 24 state members of CCAMLR and the European Union. The active engagement of all the countries will be critical in continuing to roll out the network of MPAs desired by most of IUCNs members, both governments and NGOs.

Home to vitally important populations of Emperor Penguins and Adélie Penguins, Weddell Seals, Crabeater Seals 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 an initial period of 35 years.

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. However, 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. IUCN believes 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, and follows the announcement in August this year of the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument in Hawai‘i, USA, to 1.51 million square kilometres.