Russia on Tuesday blocked the adoption of two proposed Marine Protected Areas in waters off Antarctica.

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The proposals – for an MPA in the Ross Sea and a series of MPAs off East Antarctica – had been proposed by the United States, New Zealand, Australia, France and the European Union as a way to protect sensitive Southern Ocean ecosystems from overfishing of Patagonian toothfish and, potentially, krill.

However, when the proposals were first made at last October’s annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the commission’s 25 members (24 nations and the EU) could not reach agreement. As a result, CCAMLR arranged a special meeting – only the second in its history – which was held in Bremerhaven, Germany this week.

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Because CCAMLR requires consensus, any proposal can be scuppered if just one country objects, and Russia – with some support from Ukraine – did just that. After sitting through and participating in three days of a preparatory scientific meeting late last week, Russia surprised everyone on the first day of this week’s political meeting by questioning whether CCAMLR had the legal authority to establish MPAs. The move stunned other meeting participants and observers, who pointed out that CCAMLR has already created an MPA around the South Orkney Islands. Ukraine, meanwhile, argued that the best way to monitor the health and strength of fish stocks in Antarctica was through continued fishing.

“Russia and Ukraine have fishing interests and are a little bit afraid that these could be compromised in some way,” Walter Dubner, the head of the German delegation of the talks, was reported as saying. “It is all about fishing,” he added. “That is their major concern.”

As the meeting broke up with no agreement, environmentalists pinned their hopes on CCAMLR’s next annual meeting, in Hobart, Tasmania later this year.

“The actions of the Russian delegation have stalled progress on protecting the Ross Sea and East Antarctica, and have put international cooperation and goodwill at risk, two key ingredients needed for global marine conservation,” said Andrea Kavanagh of The Pew Charitable Trusts. “It is imperative that countries send their representatives back to the table in Hobart three months from now to find consensus to protect marine life in Antarctic waters and safeguard some of the most pristine ocean areas on Earth.”

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“We salute those CCAMLR Members that tried so hard to find common ground to establish these Antarctic MPAs,” said Jim Barnes, Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC). “But we are distraught that one county is blocking CCAMLR from meeting its MPA commitments and to see such bad faith here in Bremerhaven. We look forward to Russia finding constructive ways to participate in establishing MPAs at the next meeting this October.”

Photo of orcas in the Ross Sea by John B. Weller, courtesy Pew Charitable Trusts