In October, world leaders came together for the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the regulatory body that governs the waters around Antarctica. Yet CCAMLR failed to establish vital protections for Antarctica’s Southern Ocean once again despite resounding international support for the Commission to take sweeping conservation actions.
CCAMLR was first established in 1982 in response to growing commercial interest in Antarctica’s ocean resources, particularly krill. Since then, CCAMLR has passed many conservation measures to protect Antarctica, including measures that established the South Orkney Islands and Ross Sea marine protected areas (MPAs) in 2009 and 2016, respectively. But in recent years, CCAMLR has failed to establish additional MPAs despite the Commission’s formal commitment to establish a network of MPAs around the continent over a decade ago. Today, only about 5% of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is protected.
This year, CCAMLR had the opportunity to create three new MPAs: the Weddell Sea, the East Antarctic, and the Antarctic Peninsula MPAs. Together, the establishment of these three new MPAs would have constituted the largest conservation action ever taken and would have expanded protections to about 20% of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean – or about 1% of the world’s ocean. But CCAMLR was unable to obtain the unanimous support necessary to establish any of the three MPAs proposed.
Opposition to all three MPAs came primarily from Russia and China. Representatives from both countries cited issues with the conservation measure that established CCAMLR’s MPA designation process. However, the designation process was already unanimously approved in 2009 by all CCAMLR members, including Russia and China.
Both countries also raised concerns over the amount of science being used to support CCAMLR’s MPA proposals. Yet, as Andrea Kavanagh at the Pew Charitable Trusts points out, the additional scientific evidence China in particular is requesting for the proposed MPAs is well beyond that which CCAMLR uses to establish fishing regulations in the Southern Ocean. “What CCAMLR always operates under is the ‘best available science’,” Kavanagh explains, “But in the case of the MPAs, China is requesting a level of science that just doesn’t exist. If we turned the tables and said ‘okay, if we need that level of science to make a decision on conservation, then we will also require that same level of science on fishing’, there would be absolutely no fishing in the Southern Ocean.”
According to the preliminary report on the recent meeting, China and Russia expressed a need to elaborate on the definition of an MPA, develop a new scientific approach to identify areas worthy of being considered MPAs in the first place, and adopt a mandatory checklist for all MPAs. Instead of raising concerns specific to each MPA, proposed China and Russia are demanding CCAMLR re-do the MPA designation process the two countries previously agreed to.
Despite employing tactics that appear to serve to prevent new MPAs from being designated, China and Russia’s motivations for blocking these MPAs are not clear. In a ‘normal’, non-pandemic year, the in-person meeting would allow for the personal, off-the-record discussions often needed to garner support for international actions. However, both this year and in 2020, CCAMLR was forced to meet virtually. And while this year’s virtual meeting went more smoothly than last year’s, Kavanagh says the virtual setting inevitably affected the results of this year’s meeting.
Kavanagh also points to the growing support for all three MPAs as a positive sign. “The EU had a great strategy – they asked other countries to become co-proponents on their proposal, which is not something that’s normal at CCAMLR; usually it’s just one or two countries,” says Kavanagh. “Now there are 18 co-sponsors on both the East Antarctic and Weddell Sea [MPA] proposals. That’s 18 out of 26 total countries.” With the mounting international support for creating new MPAs, along with the hope that next year’s meeting may return to an in-person setting, there is hope CCAMLR may finally expand the Southern Ocean’s protections in 2022.