Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons: Extreme Green risks Ross Sea own goal

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Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

There is a debate raging between fishing and marine protection in the Ross Sea region. Last week we took care of the myths purported by the green-necks, this week we will turn to three of the serious proposals for marine protection. The New Zealand and United States draft proposals protect most of the Ross Sea proper, and the vast majority of the ecosystem features considered important by scientists. Yet the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA, a coalition of environmental NGOs) is calling for more protection. Let's look at the differences in the draft proposals.

The key issue is one of trade-offs. Creating a Marine Protected Area in international waters is ultimately a diplomatic process, and will inevitably require some horse trading in order to reach consensus among nations. In particular Russia, Korea and China will need persuading, and the best way to do this is through the science.

The New Zealand draft proposal as it stands is based on science, and is the result of an open and transparent process (known as systematic conservation planning) that all key New Zealand partners (including our top scientists, NGOs and the fishing industry) were involved with.

The trade-offs of the New Zealand scenario are clear - fishing will be eliminated from 15-20 per cent of its former range while the ecosystem features that scientists consider to be particularly important and vulnerable to the potential effects of fishing will be 90-100 per cent protected. These are the bits that the AOA rightly point out need to be protected as a "natural laboratory".

The United States and AOA proposals were not developed through the same systematic process, so the trade-offs between protection and other activities including fishing are murkier.

Under the New Zealand proposal the protection priorities are clearly stated; it is simple to shift the proposed boundaries of the Marine Protected Area and immediately see the impacts on both fishing and the protection of important habitats. By contrast, it is difficult to tell from the AOA proposal which areas they consider most important to protect - would they be willing to give up parts of the Ross Sea itself for some of their additional proposed areas outside the Ross Sea? It is unlikely.

In a recent Herald opinion piece the AOA claimed that their alternative is not anti-fishing, but this is sophistry. In reality the AOA proposal would eliminate so much of the existing toothfish fishing grounds it would make fishing of the paltry remainder uneconomic. In fact one of the main justifications for protecting the additional "Area Two" put forward by the AOA is that it is a toothfish feeding ground. It is impossible to protect 100 per cent of toothfish feeding grounds and still have a viable fishery; where else do they propose to go fishing - where toothfish go for holidays and don't eat?

Many of the other AOA arguments for their additional protected areas are questionable. They declare concern over benthic habitats, yet bottom trawling is already banned in the Ross Sea region, all fishing is prohibited from grounds shallower than 550 metres water depth (the main areas of benthic diversity are shallow) and the bottom impacts of long-lining are minimal.

Some of the features they want to protect (like underwater ridges and troughs) couldn't possibly be harmed by fishing, unless they started using dynamite.

Finally their claims about some of their additional areas being important feeding areas for Weddell seals and killer whales are shaky, with over 90 per cent of these areas already included within the New Zealand draft proposal.

The AOA campaign on marine protection is the traditional NGO stance: take the extreme position in the hope that achieves something moderate. It looks like Negotiating 101; it certainly confuses the public and risks a far more serious consequence. What is even stranger is that some of the local NGOs were involved in the New Zealand Government process before they had to get in behind the AOA proposal which came out of the international NGO offices.

The politics AOA plays could embarrass Western Governments into taking a far tougher, stance on marine protection. And such a position may win politicians the Green vote, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory. Such a holier-than-thou stance could be immediately vetoed by fishing nations and that would derail the whole marine protection campaign in the Ross Sea region. That would be a bad outcome solely due to risky tactics.

Of course the environmental movement can point to instances where their tactics have worked - such as their opposition to mining in Antarctica. In the midst of negotiations of a treaty on mining (in our own Wellington) the idea of declaring Antarctica a world reserve caught on and ended up as a reality. So maybe idealism sometimes pays off? It's more likely that most countries agreed to this because there was no realistic prospect of mining in Antarctica for the foreseeable future. Fishing is already an established industry, and one that fishing countries won't give up so easily.

There are other recent examples where trying to impose Western self-righteous, selective morals on other cultures has backfired. Take the International Whaling Commission. Despite the moratorium on whaling, Western nations have been unsuccessful at persuading Japan, Norway and Iceland to stop whaling. In fact in recent years Japan has been slowly massing the numbers in the IWC to possibly resume commercial whaling - a terrible outcome.

To head this off New Zealand tried to broker a compromise; to allow some whaling but with a reduced quota. This would offer the Japanese an honourable exit from the industry (which is important culturally) but get a meaningful reduction in whaling - after all the market for whale meat is dwindling in Japan. However a pious stance by NGOs against all whaling squandered any chance of a deal. Could the same happen here?

The final pragmatic issue with the AOA proposal is that without any legal fishing in the Ross Sea region, the Ross Sea itself could be more vulnerable to illegal fishing. Where toothfish stocks around Antarctica have been overfished in the past it has primarily been because of illegal fishing. Having legal fishers operating just outside the Ross Sea is one of the best means of protection we have from illegal fishers getting into the Ross Sea.

The legal fishers are always pretty quick to detect and report the bad boys and that kicks the international machinery of sanction into action. No legals down there could mean open slather.

There is nothing wrong with believing that everything south of 60 degrees South is sacrosanct and should be locked away in a marine reserve, but nobody has the unilateral power to enforce that high ground. These are international waters, and the convention governing them allows for "rational use" of the fish resource. This is a great opportunity to make real gains in protecting the environment and its species. We must be mindful of the realities of international negotiations faced by our Government. If they manage to achieve anything like the current proposal in the Ross Sea it would be a huge success; we should pat them on the back and tell them to get on with doing a similar process in our own waters.

The AOA strategy on the other hand risks a repeat of the balls-up that has occurred with whaling, and diverts attention from the real issue: despite the best efforts of DOC and local NGOs we have a shameful domestic record on marine protection.

We need to do better at home rather than get sucked up into some international green extreme.

ON THE WEB

For different perspectives read

* The Ross Sea: A question for Gareth Morgan
* Protecting Happy Feet's home.

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