Antarctica Is Now Home to the World's Largest Marine Reserve

An area the combined size of France and Spain has been declared off-limits to fishing.

Twenty-four countries and the European Union have agreed to establish the world's largest marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea, bringing to an end - at least for now - six years of determined effort, lobbying and, ultimately, compromise.

The member nations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, agreed on Friday morning to increase protection in 580,000 square miles of the sea, with 425,000 square miles being set aside as a "no-take" zone where fishing is prohibited.

The Ross Sea, the southernmost sea in the world, is an embayment that slices into East Antarctica, southeast of New Zealand. It terminates in the Ross Ice Shelf and the McMurdo Sound region, from where Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott respectively launched their bids for the South Pole a little over 100 years ago.

According to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, the Ross Sea has been identified by scientists as being one of the world's most intact large marine ecosystems. It's home to 38 percent of the world's Adélie penguins, 26 percent of Emperor penguins, more than 30 percent of Antarctic petrels, 6 percent of Antarctic minke whales, and perhaps more than 30 percent of "Ross Sea" killer whales. Moreover, it has the richest diversity of fishes in the high latitude Southern Ocean, including seven species found nowhere else.

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However, among the fish species found there is the Antarctic toothfish, a top predator that can weigh more than 250 pounds, grow to more than 6 feet in length and live for 50 years. It's also been increasingly the target of the commercial fishing industry, which markets it as "Chilean sea bass." A 2012 study suggested that the fish was declining in the Ross Sea, and there were concerns also about the broader ecological impacts of fishing top predators.

Hence the move within CCAMLR to establish at least part of the sea as a marine protected area. However, that designation required consensus within the organization, and Russia, which possesses a large toothfish fishery, remained an obstacle, as did to a lesser extent China and Japan. It took years of concerted effort, spearheaded by the United States and New Zealand, to achieve a compromise that all could accept.

Key to that compromise was the fact that the agreement will expire in 35 years. Environmentalists and the United States had pushed initially for it to be indefinite, and then to last 50 years, while China had countered that any protective measure should not be for longer than two decades. While that compromise takes the gloss off the victory for some, it hasn't entirely diminished their feelings of triumph.

"This is a historic, precedent setting-breakthrough that has been years in the making," John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, told Seeker. "There are a lot of happy-footed penguins in Antarctica right now. We all wanted to see permanent protections for the Ross Sea, but I am confident that by the time this is up for renewal in 35 years it will not be a controversial or difficult decision."

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The sea was discovered by British explorer Sir James Clark Ross, who sailed his ships Erebus and Terror into the embayment in 1841, where he marveled at the "extreme solitude and omnipotent grandeur" of the surroundings. The ships were later dispatched to find the Northwest Passage, before disappearing on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. The Ross Sea's protection comes just weeks after the apparent discovery of the wreck of the Terror, two years after the discovery of Erebus.

"What a fantastic finish to the year, with both ships now found too," Philippa Ross, the explorer's great-great-great-granddaughter said to Seeker from New Zealand.

She added: "The Ross family is euphoric that our family legacy has been honored in the 175th anniversary year since James first discovered the Ross Sea. Thanks to the individuals and organizations who have poured their hearts and souls into campaigning for its protection along with the support of over a million global citizens; the world's most pristine marine ecosystem can now support the life of our oceans, the planet and future generations to come."

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