Peter Young: Saving Ross Sea test of humanity

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Values need to trump politics at second meeting on marine protection of precious region, writes Peter Young.

Peter Young says talks around the Ross Sea have drifted from protecting the area to haggling over fishing rights.
Peter Young says talks around the Ross Sea have drifted from protecting the area to haggling over fishing rights.

Seven years ago as a freelance documentary cameraman, I was invited to film the wildlife in Antarctica's Ross Sea, widely regarded as the most pristine stretch of ocean on the planet.

I was so moved by my experience in this remote and remarkable corner of the world that when I discovered a recently established toothfish fishery threatened the natural balance of the ecosystem, I decided to do something about it.

With a group of concerned Ross Sea scientists and a handful of other like-minded folk, I worked on a campaign called The Last Ocean. It called for a halt to commercial fishing and protection of the entire Ross Sea.

That campaign was meant to have ended last week when representatives from the 24 nations and the European Union that make up the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), gathered in Bremerhaven, Germany, to try to reach agreement on a proposal to create the world's largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea.

The proposal, which was jointly presented to the commission by the United States and New Zealand Governments, had barely been discussed before Russia, a member of the commission and a nation that has historically been opposed to marine protection, questioned the organisation's ability to legally designate MPAs.

The move, which was seen by many as a blatant attempt to stall progress, did exactly that. Talks came to an abrupt halt and when delegations headed home with nothing more than a few extra air-points, on the long flight back I'm sure most were pondering the incredible waste of everyone's time and the best way forward. I certainly was.

It's hard to say exactly what was behind Russia's actions, but I don't believe the situation is as bad as it may seem, and have faith that when CCAMLR reconvenes in a few months in Hobart, it will be able to put some credibility back into these talks. The commission is a place of compromise and given the different positions and perspectives that come together under one roof, it has to be.

Add consensus-based decision-making into the mix and it is easy to see why things move so slowly.

As the name implies, CCAMLR was established to conserve Antarctic marine living resources. The organisation itself agreed to establish a network of marine protected areas around Antarctica, but just because it is self-imposed, doesn't make the issue any easier to navigate. In a world of diminishing resources, marine protection has become a topic of increasing contention.

Since the Ross Sea fishery began, CCAMLR's focus has slowly drifted from conservation matters to fishery management. Member nations spend an increasing amount of time discussing matters around rights to ocean resources and are driven by the fear of losing them as opposed to the values of protecting them. Implementing the Ross Sea MPAs will bring a shift back to the conservation values upon which this organisation was founded.

The proposal itself is backed by a huge amount of sound scientific evidence that has been recommended by CCAMLR's own scientific committee. Credit must be given to both Governments for their work on this and I know both remain committed to seeing this proposal through. Unfortunately the proposed marine protected area allows for continued commercial fishing. Years ago as the proposals developed I let go of my expectations for the Ross Sea but never my beliefs.

An important part of The Last Ocean campaign has been a documentary I made of the same name. I screened it last month at the Royal Geographical Society in London. In the audience was the grand-daughter of Sir Robert Falcon Scott and the descendants of Sir James Clark Ross, the man who first put the Ross Sea on the map in 1841. I was honoured to be standing in the same room where Ross, Scott and Shackleton told their tales from the Ross Sea - theirs were of courage, exploration and adventure. Mine was a very different tale, told in a very different world.

Only 100 years separates our stories, yet over that time we have seen dramatic change in our oceans. Studies show 80 per cent of the world's oceans have been over-exploited, 90 per cent of the large fish have gone.

Simply put, if we lose life in our oceans we lose life itself and the fact that the Ross Sea is our last healthy, intact ocean should be all the reason we need to protect it.

How well it is protected will now depend on the talks in Hobart and many eyes will be watching to see how New Zealand and United States hold their ground in the face of strong opposition. It will be up to the delegations to argue the best deal for the Ross Sea. Ultimately that deal will not be based on science, but on politics, on economics and I hope, on values - because the long-term values for protecting the Ross Sea are profound.

The Ross Sea is the jewel in Antarctica's Crown. It contains the most productive waters in the entire Southern Ocean and the highest concentrations of wildlife.

Creating a "Serengeti of the South" would set aside one of the last bastions of the natural world for all humanity to study, celebrate and to share. And I hope that in future those who make the long journey south will not only be rewarded by the incredible landscapes and wildlife that I saw, but by the knowledge that humanity has had the sense to protect this great ocean wilderness.

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