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In historic agreement, nations create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica

A historic deal has been hammered out between 24 nations and the European Union to create the world's largest marine reserve in the Antarctic Ocean. (Video: Video: Reuters / Photo: John B. Weller/Courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trust)

After years of stalemate, world leaders have finally agreed to protect a vast expanse of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. Covering an area of 600,000 square miles in the Ross Sea, it will be the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. And while the preserve is not permanent, it will remain in effect for the next 35 years before world leaders will discuss its renewal.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the international body responsible for the management of the Southern Ocean, announced the agreement Friday morning in Hobart, Australia, after two weeks of meetings and negotiations.

The new protected area will bar fishing, with a few exceptions in designated areas for research purposes. It will help preserve one of the most pristine marine ecosystems left on Earth, environmentalists say, safeguarding the area against pollution and overfishing and helping protect species all the way up the food chain, from tiny krill to penguins, seals and whales. The area will also provide an important scientific service by allowing research and monitoring in one of the last areas on Earth that’s still relatively untouched by humans.

“It’s a really exciting moment for us,” Evan Bloom, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Oceans and Polar Affairs and head of the U.S. delegation to CCAMLR, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “You don’t often get a win for marine conservation that’s this big, so it’s kind of a nice moment for us.”

A long road to success  

The agreement comes after five years of strained negotiations. The Southern Ocean is home to important commercial fishing interests, mostly revolving around toothfish and krill, for certain CCAMLR members, and in previous years, some countries have expressed concern about how the MPA might affect the industry.

According to CCAMLR rules, all 25 members — which include 24 nations and the European Union — must reach a consensus before an MPA can be established. As of the start of this year’s proceedings, Russia was the only member that had yet to agree with the proposal.

“We did have to bring Russia on board to this proposal, and we did a lot of talking to Russia prior to the meeting and at the meeting,” Bloom said. The final agreement is notable in that it was reached during a time of otherwise strained political relationships between Russia and the United States.

“Russia has a proud history of exploration and science in Antarctica,” Sergei Ivanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for ecology, said in a statement. “In this time of political turbulence in so many parts of the world, we are pleased to be part of this collaborative international effort to safeguard the Ross Sea.”

A critical move for conservation  

The Ross Sea is largely regarded as a biodiversity hot spot and one of the most pristine marine ecosystems left on the planet. It’s also adjacent to the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest one in Antarctica.

The region is home to many charismatic species, including orcas, leopard seals and Adelie and emperor penguins, as well as the coveted toothfish and krill. But in recent years, environmentalists have become concerned about the combined effects of fishing and climate change on these populations. Protecting the region from commercial fishing will have positive effects that radiate throughout the food chain, according to Andrea Kavanagh, director of the global penguin conservation campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The MPA will allow some fishing for research purposes in designated areas and in general will provide important scientific insights into the effects of future climate change, environmentalists say.

“The type of research that we are really looking forward to coming out is looking at how a healthy ecosystem like the Ross Sea, one with all its top predators still intact, adapts to a changing climate — to see what happens and how some of those findings can help us develop mitigation measures for other parts of the planet,” Kavanagh told The Post.

The 35-year time limit is “disappointing,” she said, but added that “we’re confident that in 35 years’ time, the conservation benefits will be well established. According to Bloom, many CCAMLR members, including the United States, would have preferred a permanent designation, but a compromise was necessary in reaching this year’s agreement.

Kavanagh added that the new MPA sets a historic precedent for future protected areas on the high seas, which will also have to be established through international negotiations.

“It’s the very first of this size to ever be negotiated by a multilateral body that had to agree by 100 percent consensus,” she said. “It now sets the precedent for all other organizations around the world to protect our global oceans.”

The agreement represents “further proof that the world is finally beginning to understand the urgency of the threats facing our planet,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who was closely involved in the negotiations with Russia, said in a statement.

“It happened thanks to many years of persistent scientific and policy review, intense negotiations and principled diplomacy,” he added. “It happened because our nations understood the responsibility we share to protect this unique place for future generations.”