An attempt to establish a series of marine reserves in Antarctic waters has been stymied after Russia rejected proposals on Friday that had been put forward at an international meeting in Hobart, Australia.

The meeting marked the third recent attempt to adopt marine protected areas, or MPAs, in the Antarctic. The proposed reserves – in waters off East Antarctica and in the Ross Sea – had failed to attract consensus at last year’s meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), prompting CCAMLR to hold a special meeting in Germany earlier this year to discuss scientific and technical aspects of the plans. Several days into that meeting, the Russian delegation surprised other nations in attendance by suddenly announcing it doubted CCAMLR had the authority to establish MPAs – despite the fact that the organization had done so in the past.

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In response, the United States and New Zealand risked the ire of environmentalists by reducing the size of their proposed Ross Sea MPA in such a way that they believed it would engender Russian support; but at the end of this week’s meeting Russia once again pulled the plug, stating that both proposals were inconsistent with their fishing interests and that they had received no direction from Moscow that would enable them to support either plan.

Because CCAMLR operates on consensus, the Russian position has effectively scuppered the proposed reserves, at least for now.

“The international community came together in Hobart to protect key parts of the Antarctic Ocean—one of the last pristine environments in the world—yet Russia chose to stand in the way,” said Joshua Reichert, executive vice president of The Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the organizations represented at the meeting.

“There is a global consensus on the need to protect the Antarctic Ocean that is supported by sound science. The overwhelming majority of the member countries of CCAMLR support the establishment of a permanent reserve in these waters. We stand resolute in continuing our efforts to ensure that this occurs.”

Ocean Awesomeness

“This is a dark day not just for the Antarctic, but for the world’s oceans,” added Andrea Kavanagh, director of Pew’s Southern Ocean sanctuaries project. “This was the international community’s third attempt to protect some of the most pristine ocean areas on Earth, but self interest got in the way once again. The scientific basis to create these reserves is overwhelming. The stubborn self interest of a few should not be allowed to deny the will of the majority of countries around the world.”

The meeting’s outcome was all the more devastating for environmentalists because of a tragedy that occurred over the weekend when Elyssa Rosen, a member of the Pew delegation, died in a diving accident.  In response, CCAMLR flew its flags at half mast, and her colleagues, in a statement read during the meeting, remembered her as a “warm, caring and exceptionally kind character” with a “huge, open heart.”

“Those of us who knew her both as a colleague and a friend were exceptionally lucky,” they added. “This loss will long be mourned, and it will be felt very deeply by the world at large in losing this fierce protector of and defender of the last wild places on Earth.”

Photo: Adélie penguins explode from the water like corks, crashing onto the floating ice of Antarctica’s Ross Sea. Photograph by John Weller, courtesy the Pew Charitable Trusts.