As Antarctica is undergoing massive changes—in its climate, because of rapidly melting ice shelves, and in its biology, because invasive species are moving into the warming waters—it’s also playing a new role in scientists’ understanding of how life on Earth gets by. The continent was long thought to be a mostly barren wasteland, home to penguins and seals and little else, but recent investigations in the surrounding oceans and in lakes deep beneath the glaciers have turned up a wealth of new life—a trove of thriving species likely found nowhere else on Earth.
Recognizing Antarctica’s status as one of the last largely untapped ecosystems on Earth, many members of an international government consortium, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), have been pushing hard to have 963 million acres of the Southern Ocean set off as a protected reserve. Pew Environment writes:
The proposed Southern Ocean protections included a Ross Sea marine reserve of 1.6 million square kilometres — where no fishing would be allowed — within a 2.3 million square kilometre marine protected area, and seven marine protected areas on the East Antarctic coast, covering an additional 1.6 million square kilometres. The Ross Sea plan was proposed by the United States and New Zealand; the East Antarctic protections were championed by Australia, France, and the E.U.
Scientists, say Pew, have “called the Ross Sea ‘The least altered marine ecosystem on Earth,’ with unusually large and closely interacting populations of several marine bird and mammal species.”
The Southern Ocean is home to thousands of unique species including most of the world’s penguins, whales, seabirds, colossal squid, and the remarkable but heavily fished Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish. The region is critical for scientific research, both for studying how intact marine ecosystems function and for determining the accelerating impacts of global climate change.
Unfortunately for those arguing for greater protections (which included representatives from the United States), the plan to set the Southern Ocean regions aside, free from fishing and other enterprises, has been nixed. At a meeting organized to discuss the plan, says Nature, a “surprise legal objection from Russian diplomats” stalled the plan.
he Russian delegation questioned the very authority of the Commission for the Conservation on Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which regulates fishing in Antarctica, to create reserves.
… This has enraged NGOs, who pointed out that CCAMLR has already created one such ‘marine protected area’ and that all of the commission’s members had previously agreed in principle that it should create such zones. NGO representatives accused Russia of coming in bad faith to the meeting, which was convened specifically to discuss the marine reserves after they were not agreed to at another meeting last year.
With no legal restrictions in place, fisheries would be free to act in the Southern Ocean. Indeed, fishing has been a “major sticking point in the talks,” says the BBC:
pecies like krill and patagonian toothfish prov highly lucrative for boats from a range of countries, including South Korea, Norway and Japan.
The tiny shrimp like Antarctic krill are a key element of the ecosystem, as they are part of the diet of whales, penguins, seals and sea birds.
However demand for krill has risen sharply in recent years thanks to growing interest in Omega-3 dietary supplements.
The group, says Der Spiegel, plans to meet once more in October to discuss the marine protected area. “Although there is hope that they may be approved there,” says Nature, “Russia’s hardline approach to this week’s meeting casts a long shadow, and raises serious doubts about the chances of approval.”
More from Smithsonian.com:
‘Bone-Eating Zombie Worm’ And Eight Other New Species Live on the First Whale Skeleton Found in Antarctica
Thousands of Species Found in a Lake Cut Off From the World for Millions of Years
There Goes the Ecosystem: Alien Animals Invade Antarctica