Home Research Antarctic’s marine protected areas could be at risk because of political infighting

Antarctic’s marine protected areas could be at risk because of political infighting


Southern ocean and specifically the water surrounding Antarctica are home to thriving population of a range of marine animals including krill, seabirds, fish and whales and efforts are currently underway to build a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the region.

A new study has found that these efforts are not bearing fruits owing to a range of reasons including political infighting and demands that prioritize fishing interests over conservation. Published in Science and carried out by researchers at Stanford the study suggests that the overall goal of building the MPAs have become entangled in political issues and priority of marine resource harvesting over conservation of the marine ecosystems in the Southern Ocean.

The findings come just days before the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is being convened to resume negotiations of Southern Ocean MPAs. Scientists involved with the study are of the opinion that the meeting has an opportunity to set an example for ongoing negotiations at the United Nations level to develop a legal instrument for conserving biodiversity in international waters, also known as the high seas. But if CCAMLR continues to fall short in its duties, it could set a sorry example with ramifications for marine protection in other parts of the world.

If the CCAMLR isn’t able to guard the interest of the marine ecosystems then it would be a clear message that our greed towards harvesting marine resources is taking much a priority than conservation and this in turn will affect our future generations for years to come. Over ten years of negotiations and no fruits signals towards failure of the CCAMLR, the authors note.

One of the reasons why members of CCAMLR aren’t able to reach an agreement is towards the concept of ‘rational use’. Because this regions is largely untapped, the stocks of krill, fish, seabirds and whales haven’t declined and this makes the region a very lucrative fishing spot. Under the ‘rational use’ definition, fishing has to be limited to the point where it won’t cause irreversible damage to the greater marine ecosystems of the Southern Ocean and for precautionary catch limits and scientific oversight to be set in place.

But as the number of CCAMLR’s fishing nations has grown, and as pressure increases to secure access to current and future resources in the Southern Ocean, some nations are pushing to equate rational use with the unfettered right to fish.

Member nations like China and Russia are demanding a proof that fishing threatens ecosystems and this has effectively reversed the burden of proof whereby the whole concept of ‘rational use’ is being interpreted as unequivocal fishing.

Member nations are also demanding for sunset clauses and this effectively has become a fierce debate point. Researchers point out that some members are advocating that Southern Ocean MPAs have built-in expiration dates ranging from 20 to 30 years. However these sunset clauses are inconsistent with the stated goals of MPAs and they do not meet with internationally established criteria for protected areas and may not qualify for global MPA targets, the researchers have warned.

Broader geopolitics have also infiltrated CCAMLR negotiations, the authors say. For example, poor international relations between nations – such as tensions between Russia and the United States over Crimea – seem to be spilling into the negotiating room. Nations opposing MPAs are being accused of not negotiating in good faith, while proponents of MPAs are accused of using MPAs a political tool.