Antarctica Saved?


6:03pm, Thursday, October 27th.

I was “in the pews” at the old Hutchins School in Hobart (Tasmania, Australia), now the headquarters of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This is the body that regulates fishing for Antarctic toothfish, marketed here as Chilean sea bass, and for krill, the shrimp-like crustacean I call the “power lunch of the Antarctic” because it’s the keystone prey item for penguins, whales, seals, and other fish.

The chair, Vasily Titushkin, returned from a coffee and tea break in the “chapel” adjoining the meeting room to announce that, finally, consensus had been reached on the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area proposal. Whoops, cries, applause, and sustained cheering rang out loudly and wildly, seemingly whisking away the five, angst-ridden years it had taken to protect these 1.55 million square kilometers of eastern Antarctic marine-scape representing more than 12 percent of the Southern Ocean. The agreement will last for 35 years and place 72% of this bio-diverse area fully off limits from any commercial fishing activity.

All 24 voting countries plus the European Union had to agree. A year ago, China came onboard, leaving the Russian Federation isolated as the only holdout. On Monday, phones buzzed further between Moscow and Washington, leading to Russia changing its position. Unexpectedly, however, Japan then insisted on a 20-year duration rather than the 50 years in the most recent U.S.-New Zealand proposal, and these dueling duration positions took three more days to resolve.

It was a special moment.

For Antarctica.

For marine protection worldwide.

And for all of us dreamers who have Antarctica deeply seeped inside.

CCAMLR meetings take place annually during the last two weeks of October. This year, in addition to the Ross Sea conservation measure, there also was agreement to 100% observer coverage in Antarctica’s krill fishery, potential research zones where ice sheets have retreated or collapsed, and a rollover for five years of narrowly drawn krill fishing limits in the Antarctic Peninsula on the western side of the continent. In addition, the Association of Responsible Antarctic Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK), consisting of five companies that control 80% of krill fishing in the Antarctic Peninsula, announced a voluntary plan to refrain from fishing near penguin colonies in this vastly warming region.
The Ross Sea MPA is the second that’s been established. Two more remain under discussion and a third is contemplated. Most critically, the Ross Sea MPA is strong evidence of CCAMLR working as its framers intended, conserving the precious waters surrounding a continent that’s as large as the U.S. and Mexico combined, and covered by a snow dome comprising 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of the world’s fresh water. The result also is testament to sustained diplomatic and scientific effort by President Obama, Secretary Kerry and the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental & Scientific Affairs, NOAA’s Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program, and New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

But we’re not done. We can’t be.

The Antarctic Treaty, the short, 3-page “Magna Carta of Modern Times” that entered into force in 1961, set the great Seventh Continent aside for peace, science, and conservation, for all future generations. The convention establishing CCAMLR in 1982 was equally ambitious, focusing on conservation of Antarctica’s marine ecosystem, with the guiding principle of sanctioning human activities like fishing only if they maintained ecological relationships between harvested, dependent, and related populations of Antarctic marine living resources.

These regimes are lofty and inspirational, and they’ve guided me and my work over three decades monitoring penguin and seabird population changes in the western Antarctic Peninsula, where it’s warmed faster than any place else on the planet save the Arctic. From my vantage, this year’s very successful CCAMLR meeting spurs me — and should spur all of us — forward.

Antarctica instills humility. It’s a place that makes you think about the fragility of our planet and our own, comparative insignificance. There are reminders, constantly and everywhere. These days, I walk gravel beaches once covered by glaciers. I’ve seen seabird and penguin colonies disappear or dramatically shrink. In the Amundsen Sea, just south of where I count penguins, the collapsing Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers are undermining the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, threatening, along with ice melt in Greenland, ominous sea level rise worldwide.

Is Antarctica Saved? No. Nor are we.

The world keeps changing and what happens in Antarctica affects all of us. The 3˚C./5˚F. warming already experienced in the Antarctic Peninsula is the same temperature increase Al Gore warned about 10 years ago in An Inconvenient Truth. In the Peninsula, two penguin species have declined dramatically, while a third is expanding its numbers and breeding range. Adaptation is obviously a key, but, when the warming comes our way and grossly interrupts our lives, there likely will be both “winners” and “losers.”

I am happy, greatly happy, for CCAMLR’s shining, memorable day and I hope this presages more courageous steps ahead. We, humbly, ride this planet and must continue battling to keep it from warming further, maintaining both our humility and an optimism that we can do better.

. . . Ron Naveen, founder/president of Oceanites, principal investigator of the Antarctic Site Inventory