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World’s Largest Marine Protected Area Declared in Antarctica

Emperor penguins near Western Ross Sea, Antarctica. Photo credit: © Tory Kooyman
Emperor penguins near Western Ross Sea, Antarctica. Photo © Tory Kooyman

By Maria Damanaki, Global Managing Director, Oceans, The Nature Conservancy

I am delighted that after many years of negotiations, delegates from 24 countries and the European Union meeting in Hobart, Australia have agreed that the Ross Sea in Antarctica will become the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA).

Protecting parts of the ocean owned by multiple countries is not an easy thing to do, but this first-ever large scale Marine Protected Area on the high seas proves that collaborative international efforts can yield extraordinary results.

The new protected zone will help protect what’s said to be the Earth’s most pristine marine ecosystem and will be an incredible 1.55 million square kilometers in size (equivalent to the size of Spain, Germany and France combined), with 1.1 million of those square kilometers being fully protected.

The Ross Sea is one of the last intact marine ecosystems in the world, home to penguins, Weddell seals, Antarctic tooth fish, and a unique type of killer whale. The region is magical and unique, both breathtakingly beautiful and critical for scientific research on marine ecosystems. We need this to see how they function and to understand the impacts of climate change on the ocean.

This week’s agreement was reached after 6 years of discussion and negotiation. The proposal, introduced by New Zealand and the United States, and accepted by all the other nations, will see a general protection “no-take” zone where nothing can be removed including marine life, oil, gas and minerals. As part of the compromise that emerged in negotiations, there will however be special zones where fishing from krill and toothfish will be allowed for research purposes.

Southern Giant-Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) flies over the Scotia Sea near South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Photo © Rick McEwan
Southern Giant-Petrel. Photo © Rick McEwan

Oceans are under stress across the globe. Climate change, overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution endanger not only marine animals but also food, jobs and communities. The oceans provide us with more than 80 million metric tons of fish each year. However, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 89 percent of global wild fish stocks are either overfished or fully fished, a worrisome trend when fish remain a key source of animal protein for over half the world’s population.

In addition, climate change and ocean acidification, although often receiving less public attention than other major climate change impacts like sea level rise and violent storms, is increasingly concerning scientists because of the threat it poses to coral communities and shellfish aquaculture.

This week’s victory will, I hope, set a precedent for other high seas negotiations around the world and assist attempts by the UN to develop a new and much needed marine biodiversity treaty. I very much look forward to working with other NGOs, Corporate Partners and Public Authorities on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) challenges, as momentum builds to protect and care for even more of the ocean. This week’s news is a great gift for the planet. With it, we must be inspired to collectively do more.

Explore The Nature Conservancy’s latest thinking, science and recommendations on ocean conservation.