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1 November 2016

Antarctica’s Ross Sea Declared World’s Largest Marine Protected Area

Environmentalists the world over have finally been given a reason to celebrate, as around 600,000 sq miles (1.57m sq km) of the Southern Ocean has gained official protection and listing as a marine protected area.

The decision, agreed upon unanimously by representatives from 24 countries and the EU as part of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), will see the creation of the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. In fact, the Ross Sea MPA will be the largest protected area on land or sea.

Despite the relatively small scale of the Ross Sea (it accounts for approximately 2% of the Southern Ocean), it contains a vital, nutrient-rich ecosystem that has a profound impact on the Earth, its oceans and its wildlife. Natural upwelling carries nutrients up from the depths, dispersing them globally via ocean currents and breathing new life into the far reaches of the planet. Huge numbers of krill also litter the Ross Sea; krill is a vital foodstuff for many marine species from whales to seals, and their oil is heavily relied upon in commercial salmon farming.

In terms of the larger, more recognisable species, the Ross Sea, its shelf and its slope hold many wonders. 38% of the global population of Adelie Penguins find their home here, as do 30% of Antarctic Petrels and 6% of the world’s Antarctic Minke Whales. Without these measures to protect the area and the life found within, each and every one of the aforementioned species would soon have cause for concern as global warming, pollution and over-fishing continue to threaten their habitat.

The area’s official listing as an MPA will effectively create what is known as a ‘no-take’ zone, whereby nothing, including marine life and minerals, can be removed. There will however be special exempt zones allowing the removal of krill and toothfish for research purposes.

The announcement has received considerable praise from Lewis Pugh, the UN Patron for the Oceans, who gained widespread recognition when he engaged in a number of swims in the Antarctic’s icy waters. The swims were part of an effort of Pugh’s part to raise awareness of the issues facing our oceans; he followed this up by engaging in what has been dubbed ‘speedo diplomacy’, spending two years meeting with Russian officials in order to convince them of the merits of the proposed MPA.

Russia was of particular importance during these negotiations, as by the end of last year’s talk they were the only country still opposing the Ross Sea MPA. With Russia’s President Vladimir Putin designating 2017 as the ‘Year of Ecology’, the negotiations ran considerably smoother this time around. The only hurdle then remaining was to set a timespan for the protection agreement. China went on record stating that 20 years would be appropriate, but after considering the average lifespan of the local wildlife this was deemed too short. The parties ultimately settled on a 35 year protection agreement, signalling the birth of the Ross Sea MPA.

The hope is that this decision could set an important precedent, allowing further conservation efforts to get the green light around the world, with the northern Arctic Oceans getting particular focus.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.