Last chance to protect 'last ocean'

By Jamie Morton

This week, we preview five developments set to shake up the science landscape in 2013. In our final feature, science reporter Jamie Morton looks at crucial talks to decide the future of the pristine Ross Sea.

Conservationists are trying to find a balance between commercial interests, like fishing, and the environment. Photo / NZ Defence Force
Conservationists are trying to find a balance between commercial interests, like fishing, and the environment. Photo / NZ Defence Force

It lies 3500km away in one of the coldest and most remote corners of the planet, yet the Ross Sea has sat at the centre of one of the most hotly discussed environmental issues in years.

And the last ocean, as it's known, will be sure to stay under the spotlight this year.

Hundreds of conservationists, marine scientists and advocacy groups can not overstate the importance of the Ross Sea, one of the world's last healthy marine ecosystems and an invaluable control for comparing human impact on other oceans.

In a long-awaited conference of the 25-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) at Hobart last October, they eyed a chance to forever protect it.

But with the tricky challenge of striking a balance between commercial and environmental interests, drawing up a marine protected area that all countries would agree to was always going to be a diplomatic headache.

Despite dragging on late into the conference's final day, no agreement was reached. But advocacy groups were left with one hope - a special reconvenement this year to revisit the Ross Sea and East Antarctica proposals.

Geoff Keey, New Zealand spokesman for environmental coalition Antarctic Ocean Alliance, said the Hobart conference had flushed out the sticking points.

"It was the first time countries were faced with making decisions on truly large-scale marine reserves in international waters."

His coalition wants to see the proposals designated at the next meeting, getting the ball rolling for further protection proposals to be considered at a following meeting three months after.

In the interim, the coalition would be redoubling its efforts and lobbying each of the nations and encouraging them to talk to each other.

"Political leaders in CCAMLR countries and their diplomats would have to take a long hard look at themselves if they think that failure is an option," Mr Keey said. "The 30 international and national conservation and environment organisations that are a part of AOA expect success.

"Over 1.2 million people took action to protect the Southern Ocean in the lead up to CCAMLR last October and these people all expect a positive result."

Allowing the opportunity to pass would leave the Ross Sea's existing fisheries management regime to remain in place, including areas of the Ross Sea region that are closed to fishing.

That regime did not protect key areas of the Ross Sea, nor did it encompass the goals of the marine reserve proposal offered by the United States and New Zealand.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has described the reserve proposal still on the table as having a good chance of eventually finding acceptance, although there was "considerable work" to do if it was to get across the line.

Mr Keey saw the opportunity as unique and important.

"No other ocean environment in the world is still as intact as many of those in the Southern Ocean and right now, we have the opportunity to protect it for the long-term," he said.

"There is growing support for larger marine protection internationally and CCAMLR is in a position to show real international leadership that will have lasting positive environmental benefits."


Q&A The Ross Sea

Q: What's the issue?

Conservationists want the Ross Sea, considered one of the last healthy eco-systems on the planet, to be protected from commercial fishing. Last year the toothfish industry in the Ross Sea was worth $20 million to New Zealand companies. New Zealand submitted a joint proposal with the US at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in October. Those pushing for better protection include environmental coalition Antarctic Ocean Alliance, the descendant of James Ross who discovered the sea, the diplomat who once recommended opening its fisheries and film-maker Peter Young.

Why is another meeting being held?

Opposition by some fishing nations meant the commission could reach the unanimous approval required for the proposed 2.27 million sq km reserve, however it was agreed it would be revisited at further meetings this year.

What happens if the talks fail again?

Conservationists argue that no reserve would continue to leave vulnerable eco-systems in the sea exposed to fishing and that not taking the opportunity to agree to one this year will only make it harder to do so in the future.

- NZ Herald

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