Ross Sea's critical habitats need stronger protection, writes Geoff Keey

In late October this year, New Zealand will join 23 other countries and the European Union to decide on what kind of marine protection will be created in Antarctica's Ross Sea, far to the south of New Zealand.

This is one of the world's most remarkable places and the most pristine marine ecosystem on the planet. Although on the surface it seems cold and inhospitable the ecosystem above and below the waves and icebergs is highly productive.

As ice retreats in spring and summer, light reaches the ocean triggering a bloom of photosynthesising plankton, driving an ecosystem of astonishing natural wonder.

Unlike almost everywhere else on earth, the Ross Sea has most of its top predator species intact including icons of the southern ocean, the Antarctic toothfish, penguins and seals.


Contrary to an article by Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons "Is the ministry really that fat?" the Antarctic Ocean Alliance is not calling on New Zealand to proclaim a marine reserve in the Ross Sea, because, as we know from decades of experience, that's not how diplomacy works.

The Ross Sea is a living laboratory, invaluable for humanity to learn more about the planet we need to manage better. It is also likely to be one the last places in the Southern Ocean to lose sea ice because of climate change, making it an important refuge for ice-dependent animals.

Both the New Zealand and the United States Governments have already developed scenarios for marine protection in the Ross Sea region under the international treaty that governs fishing around the Antarctic. While both scenarios are a good start, both need strengthening to protect critical habitats. Our Alliance has developed a science-based proposal that builds on the New Zealand and United States scenarios with additional areas in the wider Ross Sea region that need protection.

At last October's meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a new coalition of organisations including Greenpeace, WWF, Forest & Bird, ECO and the Last Ocean, announced a campaign to create a network of marine reserves covering 19 key habitats in the Southern Ocean, including significant areas of the Ross Sea. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance's aim is to protect these areas under the process already agreed to by the countries that are parties to the commission.

The Alliance includes organisations that have been engaged in conservation and fisheries issues in the Antarctic for a long time, and which are actively involved in the negotiations over fisheries management and marine conservation in the meetings at the commission.

We are well aware of the difficulty of persuading fishing nations to agree to marine reserves. But we also know we have to set a high bar for success.

We are encouraging both New Zealand and the United States to take on board our improvements to their scenarios and we are talking to all the commission member countries to encourage them to show a greater commitment to conservation in the Southern Ocean by supporting our proposal for a network of marine reserves around the Antarctic while the region's eco-systems are still intact.

A lot of work has gone into the Alliance proposal. We started by analysing the New Zealand and US scenarios. We pooled all the scientific information available including data about the undersea landscapes that show us where important marine ecosystems are most likely to be.


This work resulted in our proposal that includes the US and New Zealand proposals and adds three important new areas.

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance will be listening to what countries have to say about our proposal, and encouraging them to increase their commitment to conservation in the region.

While our proposal is not anti-fishing, it does have implications for fishing in the Ross Sea region. The Antarctic toothfish fishery is worth around $20-30 million in export earnings to New Zealand.

Given what it takes to catch these fish, in often frozen and treacherous waters, it's an expensive fish you aren't likely to see in fish shops in New Zealand. Toothfish is a luxury species supplied to high-end restaurants and specialty shops in the US, Japan and elsewhere. Three retailers in the US have recently refused to stock toothfish from the Ross Sea because they agree the Ross Sea should be protected.

The Alliance proposal will not ban fishing from the wider Ross Sea region, nor does it limit toothfish catches. But it will exclude fishing from the most ecologically important areas.

We think this is a fair compromise to protect one of the world's least impacted and most remarkable places from exploitation before it happens, as an investment in the future of the region and its extraordinary global heritage. We know there is pressure from fishing nations to scale back ambition for marine protection in the Ross Sea and elsewhere.

We also know that there is international pressure for the commission to deliver on a promised network of marine protected areas. Our campaign across many commission countries, not just New Zealand, aims to increase public and political awareness of the issues so that the Antarctic Ocean gets the protection it deserves.