Antarctic conservation was blocked by China and Russia at an international commission. Find out why they refuse to protect the Southern Ocean.
Growing up, I can remember Mrs. Martin telling us about the continents on the globe. She explained to us that there were seven continents.
Of course, we lived in North America, and we learned about South America’s exotic people like the Incas. In the semi-colonial terms of the time, she explained that our culture came from Great Britain, which, incidentally, was part of a continent called Europe.
Then came Asia, which was dominated by China and Japan. Australia was a fellow Commonwealth country, but with kangaroos. Africa was the Dark Continent with jungles, savannas and giraffes.
We Heard Almost Nothing About Antarctica
The continent we heard almost nothing about was Antarctica. It was tacked on at the end as a kind of an afterthought. The message seemed to be, “and then there’s Antarctica, it’s freezing, and nobody wants to live there.”
In the mid-80s, I remember watching a mini-series on PBS called The Last Place on Earth. It told the story of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions to discover the South Pole. It reinforced my impression that Antarctica was too cold for anybody to care about.
While Antarctica is very cold and mostly uninhabited by humans, a great many species live there. Sadly, like everywhere else in the world, they’re threatened by ecological change.
Progress on Fighting Threat Began in 1980
Progress on fighting this threat through Antarctic conservation began in 1980. Fourteen countries realized that seal hunting, whaling, and fishing were taking a toll on the marine environment in the Southern Ocean.
The countries negotiated and signed on to a treaty called the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Twenty-six member nations and the European Union have now joined the convention.
The treaty sets up a commission based in Tasmania, and its leaders meet annually. They just wrapped up their meeting for this year. Like everybody else in 2020, they met virtually.
Nine Scientists Published a Comment in the Journal Nature
A team of nine scientists had published a comment in the scientific journal Nature last month calling for the commission to support Antarctic conservation in the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula. They pointed to four threats to the marine habitat in the area–fishing, tourism, research infrastructure and climate change.
Conservationists are disappointed with the meeting because the commission rejected three Antarctic conservations proposals to set up marine protection areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic region. The commission has the authority to set up these areas, but it has only created two of them so far.
Scientists were proposing that the commission create new MPAs around the Antarctic Peninsula, off the coast of East Antarctica and in the Weddell Sea. They warned the commission that climate change, fishing and other human activities threaten the delicate ecosystems in the Southern Ocean.
Average Temperature is 2˚ C Above 70-Year Average
Environmental researchers are particularly concerned about the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s been one of the fastest-warming places on Earth for decades. The region hit a record high temperature of 20.75 ˚ C this year.
The average temperature on the peninsula is 2˚ C above the average for the last 70 years. There’s every reason to think that this trend will continue if nobody does anything about Antarctic conservation.
Just about every living thing in the Antarctic relies on tiny animals called krill. They’re like minuscule shrimp. About 379 million tonnes of krill live around Antarctica.
Trouble Is that Humans Also Fish for Krill
That makes them one of the species with the highest biomass on our planet. Krill provide the primary food source for whales, seals, penguins, squid, fish and penguins. These larger animals gobble up about half of the krill’s enormous biomass every year.
The trouble is that humans also fish for krill. There’s a commercial fishery for the minute creatures. It’s been growing around the Antarctic Peninsula over the past few years.
Another issue is that the krill’s larvae shelter in Antarctic sea ice. Global warming is causing glaciers in the Antarctic to melt, which wipes out their habitat.
Main Hold Out Countries are Russia and China
MPA proposals have been on the table with the commission in one form or another for the past decade. Every year they come up at the meeting, and every year the commission votes them down. The treaty requires unanimous consent to pass these measures.
The main hold out countries are Russia and China. They seem to be resisting the Antarctic conservation proposals because they want to expand their krill fisheries. Russia also exploits the MPAs in its negotiations with the US and its European allies over Ukraine.
There’s not much that environmentalists can do about this now until next year. That will be the 40th anniversary of the treaty and the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty System behind it.
Past the Point of Political Gamesmanship
The other treaty members and conservationists hope to use the occasion to coax the two holdouts to finally back the MPAs. Some additional fishing countries, like Norway, Australia and Uruguay, have bought into the Antarctic conservation proposals this year, so we’ve seen some progress.
Even so, that doesn’t help the krill or the species who rely on them. We’re past the point in the conservation crisis and the climate crisis where we can afford this kind of political gamesmanship.
As the scientists put it in their comment, “Antarctica has been a beacon of international diplomacy, scientific and peaceful cooperation for 60 years. History will judge us harshly if we fail to protect the world’s last large and unique wilderness.”
From a scientific perspective, they declared that “Nations and institutions with Antarctic interests must collaborate to generate the science base needed to inform conservation planning and policies.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Antarctic commission rejects proposed sanctuaries
Protect the Antarctic Peninsula — before it’s too late
Meeting of Antarctic experts comes to a close
Mass Extinction Happening Again
Western Bumblebee Populations Collapsing: Shot on Data
Biodiversity Targets: Canadians Need Actions, Not Words