For years, Kiwi film-maker Peter Young has been fighting for lasting protection for the pristine Ross Sea on the edge of Antarctica.

Tomorrow, his dream finally comes true, when a sprawling marine protected area (MPA) comes into effect.

After five years of debate, the MPA was agreed last year with a joint proposal by New Zealand and the United States unanimously voted in by the 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

Over 1.5m square kilometres of the Southern Ocean will be included in a "no-take" zone covering minerals and marine life, forming one of the world's largest marine sanctuaries.

Advertisement

The Ross Sea is one of the most pristine ecosystems worldwide and is home to seals, whales, seabirds and unique creatures on the seafloor.

The MPA will also protect the main nurseries of the Antarctic toothfish so that researchers can determine the sustainability of current fishing activity in the area.

Kiwi scientists have hailed the move.

"It's hard to think of a more significant event in the history of marine conservation," Niwa principal fisheries scientist Dr Stuart Hanchet said.

Adelie penguins on Franklin Island in the Ross Sea. Photo / Lieutenant Dan Weirenga, RNZN
Adelie penguins on Franklin Island in the Ross Sea. Photo / Lieutenant Dan Weirenga, RNZN

"To get the agreement of 25 of the most powerful nations on the planet to agree on a Marine Protected Area of this size is nothing short of breathtaking and gives us hope for the future."

Young, whose documentary The Last Ocean chronicled efforts to save the Ross Sea, will be among those celebrating the milestone at an event at Parliament tonight.

He spoke with science reporter Jamie Morton about his journey.

What does this milestone mean for this part of the planet — and the rest of it?

I hope that the Ross Sea MPA will bring a spirit of peace, science and co-operation to the region and believe that the creation of the MPA is a wonderful step in the right direction.

For 24 nations and the European Union to collectively agree to protect this large area of international waters provides a ray of hope in what are incredibly challenging times.

Our generation have been reaping the rewards from the nations that generously gifted us the Antarctic Treaty, its wonderful to be passing on the Ross Sea legacy to the next.

And what does it mean for you personally?

For me personally it brings closure to an incredible 10-year journey, one that began with a passionate few and grew into an international environmental movement.

We knew what we wanted but no idea where it was going to take us or how we would get there.

It was at times a very wild ride, but in the process I learnt so much.

I made great friends, a few enemies, had victories and felt incredible loss and frustration. What kept me going was the utter belief that what we were asking for was right.

It was wonderful to use my craft as a film-maker in such a positive way.

I often felt in this campaign that there was a personal obligation to do this.

Very few people had the fortune of being in my position — having the privilege of having been to the Ross Sea — having the knowledge through my documentary work about the state of the world's oceans, and as a cameraman — having the ability to simply pick up a camera and make a documentary without huge costs.

"It has always been a challenge to get people to care about a corner of the world they are very unlikely to have the opportunity to visit," says Peter Young. Photo / File

I had spent a good part of my career benefiting from filming in wild places. This was my opportunity to give something back.

Do you think this is long overdue and should have happened years ago, or are you comfortable with how the progress has gone?

When you understand the state of our oceans any sort of marine protection is long overdue.

But the scale of the Ross Sea MPA in terms of its size - and what was required in terms of reaching consensus at CCAMLR - it was huge.

Antarctic politics is international politics and having seen the bureaucracy of CCAMLR in action I understand exactly why it took this amount of time.

Credit must go to the New Zealand and US delegations that negotiated long and hard over many years for this MPA, and pulled together a proposal that was eventually agreeable to all nations.

Do you still have any concerns over the MPA and do you think it still doesn't go far enough in any areas?

The MPA doesn't have the level of protection that we at Last Ocean would have liked, but we understand that compromises needed to be made to get all nations across the line.

Commercial fishing still continues in the Ross Sea and the biomass of the Antarctic toothfish — a cornerstone predator, will be reduced by 50 per cent which will alter the natural balance of the ecosystem.

Antarctica's Ross Sea is often described as the most isolated and pristine ocean on Earth, a place where seals and penguins still rule the waves and humans are about as far away as they could be. Photo / John Weller
Antarctica's Ross Sea is often described as the most isolated and pristine ocean on Earth, a place where seals and penguins still rule the waves and humans are about as far away as they could be. Photo / John Weller

Maintaining the pristine quality of the Ross Sea ecosystem was one of the key things that we were fighting for.

Just because we can fish and make a dollar, doesn't mean we should and when you look at this issue and what we are losing, it doesn't stack up — and never will.

The MPA also has a sunset clause that will allow it to be revisited in 35 year's time.

Who knows what the world will be looking like then — but I'm hoping it will be a place where people will understand the importance of the role that nature plays in our lives and the value of having areas of ocean wilderness protected.

So what would you like to see happen in the future?

I would love people to study, understand and embrace the wonders of the natural world through the Ross Sea.

I believe there's great potential for New Zealand - Christchurch in particular - to be the gateway to this Serengeti of the South.

I have no problems with responsible, regulated tourism.

I would much rather see people take photos than fish, and that we create ambassadors and people to help spread the word for this remarkable corner of the world.

Ideally I would like to see fishing phased out of the Ross Sea and a network of marine protected areas established right around Antarctica.

I would like to point out that I am generally not anti-fishing — but I have always believed there should not be fishing in the Ross Sea for many reason — as stated in our documentary.

After all of the debate over the issue, do you believe Kiwis are generally aware enough of the Ross Sea's importance?

It has always been a challenge to get people to care about a corner of the world they are very unlikely to have the opportunity to visit.

But I hope they have some satisfaction in knowing that these protected places exit.

For me personally the biodiversity of this planet adds a richness to life that no scientist can ever measure, no economist can ever value, no politician can ever quantify.

We have so much to learn on every level from the natural world and lets never forget that we are part of one big ecosystem ourselves — Earth.