World’s largest marine protected area declared in the Antarctic

Emperor Penguin Chicks (Ross Sea, Antarctica) © John Weller.

The world’s largest marine protected area has been declared in the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean, said to be one of the last intact marine ecosystems in the world and home to penguins, Weddell seals, Antarctic toothfish and a unique type of killer whale.

Seemingly an important milestone for ocean conservation, the decision, made on 28 October, enlisted the cooperation of 24 countries and the European Union. Meeting in Hobart, Australia, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) said the agreement would safeguard 1.55 million km2 of the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean, 1.12 million km2 of which is to be fully protected, for a 35-year period.

Mike Walker, Project Director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, hailed the momentous nature of the decision. “For the first time, countries have put aside their differences to protect a large area of the Southern Ocean and international waters,” Walker said. However, he called upon the agreement to go further.

“The limited 35-year restriction for protection of the Ross Sea contradicts the scientific advice that marine protection should be long-term. Nevertheless, we are confident that the significant benefits of protecting the Southern Ocean will soon be clear and the international community will act to safeguard this special place long into the future.”

Environmentalists praised the willingness of governments to work on reaching this kind of agreement. “This would not have been possible without Russia joining with other countries to achieve today’s historic decision to protect the Ross Sea,” said Andrea Kavanagh, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts Antarctic and Southern Ocean work. “The governments of the United States and New Zealand should also be commended for their tireless work these past six years.”

Adelie Penguin Jumping onto the Ice (Ross Sea, Antarctica) © John Weller.

The region is critical for scientific research, for studying how marine ecosystems function and understanding the impacts of climate change on the ocean. Millions of people around the world have joined the global call for large-scale marine protection in Antarctica.

Two additional proposals for marine protected areas in East Antarctic waters and the Weddell Sea are still being discussed. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance is advocating to ensure that these proposals are based on the best available science.

“Although there was not a decision on the proposed protection of the Weddell Sea and the East Antarctic this year, we are confident that these areas will be protected in the coming years, adding to the system of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean,” said Walker.