By Safina Center Fellow John Weller
It has been a long time since I cried in public. But last night I was not the only one openly weeping in a stone fortress in the center of Hobart, Tasmania, as I witnessed 24 Nations and the European Union establish the world’s largest marine protected area, in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Perhaps I should back up a few paces to explain—the effort to protect the Ross Sea has consumed my life for the last dozen years. It started for me in 2004 when I read a paper by Antarctic ecologist David Ainley, who outlined the story of the Ross Sea, identifying it as the last large intact marine ecosystem left on Earth.
This idea—that we had but one pristine place left in the entire ocean—got under my skin. It was an itch that I couldn’t scratch, and I eventually called David and arranged a meeting. We met some weeks later and committed to work together to build a campaign for a marine protected area in the Ross Sea. And though we shook hands at the end of that first meeting, we made the pact with our eyes.
I’ll fast-forward through the years of single-minded pursuit, working alone in our respective garages, sometimes for days at a time with no sleep, as we slowly built momentum. Suffice to say that what followed was the birth of a community, as we entrained the attention and support of scientists, policy-makers, organizations and individuals across the globe. We joined forces with New Zealand filmmaker Peter Young, and as a trio, The Last Ocean Project began to fully take shape. Soon the project took on a life of it’s own. There are too many people to mention, too many breaks, selfless acts of generosity, and incredible collaborations.
This pursuit brought me to the Ross Sea four times. It brought my wife, and eventually my daughter, whom we named after a penguin. As we fought to bring the Ross Sea into the public view, teams of brilliant and tireless people fought concurrent battles in boardrooms and scientific journals all over the world. Maybe David started the train moving. Maybe the train started moving of its own accord. Who knows? Who cares? But the train was moving. We did our best to hold on and stoke the engines. But then it stalled on the tracks.
For years, the vision of protecting the last pristine place seemed more and more like a pipe dream. I fell, at times, into deep depression. And as my faith in the outcome waned, so did my faith in humanity. I lived this pursuit, and on several specific occasions, it nearly killed me.
All that changed last night in the stone fortress that houses the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—the international government body that manages the Southern Ocean. Led by delegates from the US and New Zealand—who for the last 5 years have traveled the world negotiating, deliberating, and building political consensus among CCAMLR members—the proposal for the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area was adopted.
In this moment, in protecting the most pristine marine ecosystem left on Earth, CCAMLR members redefined what is possible in international collaboration. They created a blueprint for the conservation – not just for the protection of the Southern Ocean, but for our global ocean, the source of life on Earth. It was an astounding achievement. This was a gift to all of humanity, present and future. I wish all of you reading this could have been here when the room erupted. I can guarantee that it would have made you cry.