New Zealand and the United States have sharply reduced the extent of a proposed protected area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, in a last-ditch effort to secure its acceptance at an international meeting next month.

In a press release, New Zealand emphasized that the new plan — to be presented at next month’s annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Australia — would, at a total area of 1.34 million square kilometers, be the largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the world. However, the press release added, certain elements of the proposal (an earlier version of which had been rejected at a special CCAMLR meeting in Germany in July) had been altered in response to advice from CCAMLR’s Scientific Committee.

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Environmentalists noted that those changes in fact backed away from making the protections permanent, and reduced the total area of the proposed MPA by 40 percent. That missing 40 percent, said Andrea Kavanagh of The Pew Charitable Trusts, includes “some key areas for spawning and breeding toothfish, for protecting some vulnerable ecosystems like seamounts.”

The original proposal was first submitted to CCAMLR’s annual meeting last year, in response to concerns that the region’s ecosystem needed protection from increased fishing, primarily for krill and Patagonian toothfish. However, such proposals require a consensus among CCAMLR’s 25 members, and at both last year’s meeting and the special gathering in July, Russia and Ukraine in particular made it clear that they were uninterested in supporting either a Ross Sea MPA or a series of MPAs in East Antarctica.

The New Zealand press release made reference to the realities of the situation when it noted that part of the reason the proposal had been changed was that, “to achieve an MPA in the Ross Sea region, every country that is a member of CCAMLR must agree.” The question for critics like Kavanagh, however, is whether such alterations make Russia any more likely to negotiate in good faith, given that most observers were stunned at Moscow’s level of obstruction in July.

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“That’s the rationale: that they want the Ross Sea protected and this is the best way to do it,” Kavanagh told Discovery News. “What I think though is that it is strategically ill-advised. That’s what sort of hits the nail on the head for all my anxieties surrounding the new proposal: If the Russians and Ukrainians are still not in a negotiating space, putting forward a proposal that reduces the overall area of the Ross Sea protections by 40 percent seems like a throwaway at this point.”

Evan Bloom, Director of the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs at the U.S. State Department, and the head of the U.S. delegation to CCAMLR, countered that, “We have been talking with a large range of countries, and we think these changes will be met with a positive response from a number of very important countries who have interest in this process. So yes, we think this is an important step to meet the concerns of a number of those parties, and we believe that they will have a positive reaction to it.”

Bloom insisted that, despite the changes, the fundamental qualities of the proposal remain sound.

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“The key aspects of the original proposal are there, especially the protection afforded to shelf and slope of the Ross Sea area,” he told Discovery News. “Our original proposal was roughly the size of Alaska, and our new proposal is roughly twice the size of Texas, so we’re still talking a very large area. But the more important thing than the size is to be able to meet the objectives that you’ve set out for creating an MPA and this is very much in line with our core objectives from the original proposal.”

Of particular concern, Kavanagh said, is that the New Zealand announcement is intentionally vague about the duration of the MPA. Norway had previously proposed a “sunset clause” under which the Ross Sea and East Antarctica MPAs would expire; but, noted Kavanagh, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ”has made it clear that if an MPA doesn’t offer permanent protection, then they don’t consider it an MPA. That is significant.”

Bloom conceded that the question of permanence is on the table.

“A large number of countries have taken the view that there should be a ‘sunset clause’, so that at a certain point the MPA would end and then the commission would have to take a decision as to whether it continues,” he explained. “Now, both our position and New Zealand’s position is that we strongly prefer an MPA that continues in perpetuity, but given the fact that a significant number of members apparently think otherwise, it’s going to have to be an issue for negotiation.”

In a statement on Monday, Kavanagh dubbed the new proposal is “a significant retreat from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s commitment earlier this year to protect the Ross Sea, one of the most pristine areas left on Earth.”

Bloom disagreed and asked for critics to understand the rationale behind the changes.

“I think that our proposal needs to be seen as a good-faith effort to promote the success of the negotiations,” he said. “It’s by no means running in the opposite direction. It really is an attempt to find a way forward. And in order to do that, in an organization that works on the basis of consensus, you have to take into account the science and you have to take into account what other members are saying. So we think this is a necessary step at this point to try to get agreement on a meaningful MPA.”

Pew and others are currently evaluating the new proposal and considering whether they feel it still merits support. The key, says Kavanagh, “is whether this document is the floor or the ceiling.”

IMAGE: Adelie penguins walk on the ice at Cape Denison in Antarctica. (Corbis)