“When it comes to the Ross Sea and Antarctica we’re not going to wait for a crisis to take action,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a crowd at National Geographic headquarters yesterday evening.
Kerry was joined at the podium by Terry Adamson, EVP of National Geographic; Karen Sack of The Pew Charitable Trusts, sponsor of the reception; Mike Moore, New Zealand’s Ambassador to the United States and a former prime minister; and Bob Carr, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and a senator of that nation. The three countries are co-sponsoring an international plan to designate Antarctica’s Ross Sea as a marine protected area (MPA).
Moore spoke of New Zealand’s connection to Antarctica as a “gateway to the ice,” noting his country’s historic role as a staging area for expeditions and research scientists, particularly to the Ross Sea.
In recent months, New Zealand fishermen had protested designation of the Ross Sea as a sanctuary, fearing that they would lose access to the toothfish (Chilean sea bass) there. But a compromise was reached.
As Moore said, “The joint proposal for the marine protected area would make it the largest in the world, roughly three and a half times the size of Texas and nine times the size of New Zealand.”
Moore added that the MPA will include a managed fishery as well as a no-take zone that is four times the size of California and six times the size of New Zealand.
“We are proud this is based on quality science,” said Moore. “To misquote the vice president of the United States, ‘This is a big (air quotes) deal.'”
“We need it,” Australia’s Carr said about the proposed marine protected area.
The Ross Sea as “Living Laboratory”
Kerry called the Ross Sea a “living laboratory” that needs protection, adding “we disrespect at our peril.”
He pointed to the fact that scientists have recently discovered proteins in toothfish there that ferry ice crystals out of their bodies. “Imagine ice cream that stays frozen without ice crystals,” he said, as one example of an application that could be gleaned from such a natural innovation.
Kerry also pointed to recent efforts to treat hypoxic babies that were partially based on knowledge gleaned from studying hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in water bodies.
“Antarctica is a collection of superlatives: the highest, coldest, windiest, driest, remotest, most pristine place on Earth,” said Kerry. “Explorers tried to cross it without any guarantees of safe return.” He stressed that Antarctica should remain “devoted to peace and learning.”
Kerry ended his remarks by making a plea for environmental protection, reminding the audience that 20 million people had taken to the streets on Earth Day in 1970 to make that case. He had started his talk recounting his childhood on Cape Cod, when mussels were plentiful and good eating. “Now it is very hard to find any mussels there,” he said. Kerry pointed to a litany of problems facing our ocean, from acidification to global warming, overfishing, and pollution.
“We call this beautiful planet Earth, but it could well have been called Ocean,” said Kerry.
Karen Sack had also set the stage for discussion on the Ross Sea. “Imagine icy blue water, teaming with life but barely understood,” she said. “The Ross Sea is a great wilderness, frigid yet remarkable.”
She added that hundreds of species make their homes there, including 38% of all Adelie penguins and 26% of Emperor penguins. “We don’t know a lot about [the Ross Sea], but we know it’s rich in biodiversity,” said Sack.
“This summer we have an opportunity to protect key areas, but we only have a few months left to secure suport for parks linking the great Southern Ocean,” said Sack.
In July 15-17, 24 countries and the European Union will meet in Bremerhaven, Germany, to vote on the proposed marine protected areas in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica. The group, called the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) since 1982, sets policy for the region by consensus.
Insiders say there is still work to be done to get other countries on board.
Following the remarks, guests viewed the documentary The Last Ocean, which showcases the biodiversity of the Ross Sea.
(View Pew’s post on the event.)
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.