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International Leadership, a Global Community, and Renewed Hope: Protecting the Ross Sea, Antarctica

Last week we made history when countries came together to adopt the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) in one of our most productive and healthy stretches of ocean: the Ross Sea, Antarctica. This feat cannot be understated. It was the culmination of the dogged efforts of hundreds of scientists, thousands of conservationists, and millions of global citizens over the course of more than a decade. But ultimately it required the political will of the more than two-dozen states that comprise the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the decision-making body that manages the Southern Ocean. Last week CCAMLR collectively found the will to protect 1.55 million km2 of the Ross Sea region, demonstrating leadership and inspiring hope that despite political tensions in other parts of the world, the Antarctic continues to be a global commons dedicated to peace, science and conservation.

Since I’ve returned home from the meeting, people keep asking me how this could have happened. How did 24 diverse countries, including Russia, China, and the United States, come to agree to protect 1.55 million km2 of the Southern Ocean, more than 70% of which will be closed to commercial fishing? How did the US and Russia find common ground in the Southern Ocean, when it has been so difficult in other diplomatic arenas?

Map of the newly adopted Ross Sea MPA, with the signatures of international CCAMLR delegates who were there at adoption (credit: John B. Weller).
Map of the newly adopted Ross Sea MPA, with the signatures of international CCAMLR delegates who were there at adoption (credit: John B. Weller).

I do not have the space here to offer the deserved long answer, but in short it was a complex and sophisticated nexus of science, public outreach, and political negotiations that ultimately led to this outcome.

Antarctic scientists, both outside of and inside of CCAMLR, worked to compile more than a century’s worth of data on the Ross Sea. They identified priority areas for biodiversity, and for the diverse array of predators and prey that live there. Some of these scientists actively advocated and petitioned on behalf of protecting the Ross Sea, noting its remarkable ecological value as the home of disproportionate abundances of penguins, seals and other Southern Ocean marine life, and scientific value as a living laboratory for studying how a healthy large marine ecosystem functions.

Conservation organizations and foundations across the world advocated intensely for Ross Sea protection. They branded the Ross Sea as “The Last Ocean” due to its assessment as perhaps the last large intact marine ecosystem left in the world. They brought the story to life with compelling media; engaged journalists across the globe; entrained support from the public, celebrities, and high-level government officials; and, delivered policy reports and papers directly to decision-makers. They harnessed the collective voice of global civil society, representing millions of citizens calling for protection of the Ross Sea.

Finding the political will proved the most difficult. A Ross Sea MPA proposal was first formally tabled to CCAMLR in 2012, a decade after scientists and conservationists first starting calling for its protection. In 2012, more than half of the Commission countries supported the proposal. After a special CCAMLR MPA meeting in 2013 all but three countries supported the proposal. By 2014, after the addition of a duration clause demanded by some countries, only Russia and China were blocking its adoption. A krill fishing zone (KRZ) was added in 2015 just west of the Ross Sea to accommodate China’s interests. But with the United States as the Ross Sea MPA proponent (along with New Zealand), Russia still appeared unwilling to concede.

Coming into 2016, Russia was the last hold-out, but all the years of science, public, and policy work would finally result in a political window of opportunity for the Ross Sea.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition Delegation outside CCAMLR after the announcement of the Ross Sea MPA.
The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition Delegation outside CCAMLR after the announcement of the Ross Sea MPA.

Why did Russia come on board, particularly in a time when the US and Russian diplomatic relations are so poor? Perhaps it was an effort to show leadership – Russia was chairing the meeting this year, has announced 2017 as a special Year of Ecology, and is preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Russia’s contested discovery of the Antarctic continent. Perhaps the decision came from Russia’s newly appointed Special Representative for Ecology, and was the result of high-level diplomatic negotiations between the US and Russia. Perhaps there was finally enough pressure inside and outside of the meeting room to force movement.

Whatever the combinations of reasons were, when CCAMLR finally came to consensus to adopt the Ross Sea MPA, the meeting room erupted into applause, some individuals cried, others embraced. In my years observing CCAMLR, I have never felt such positive energy in the room as there was that night. We showed the world that we can do remarkable things in the Antarctic, and perhaps elsewhere in our global commons. The original Antarctic Treaty was signed at the height of the Cold War. It banned military and nuclear activity on the continent and suspended sovereignty claims, effectively creating a world peace park that is still the largest nuclear free area in the world. The adoption of the Ross Sea MPA reaffirmed the authority of peace, science, and conservation in the Antarctic. The news has made international headlines around the world, and rightfully so: this is a gift to all of humanity.

An Emperor Penguin chick in the Ross Sea, one of many species protected by the new Ross Sea MPA (credit: John B. Weller).
An Emperor Penguin chick in the Ross Sea, one of many species protected by the new Ross Sea MPA (credit: John B. Weller).