Will We Protect Antarctica or Exploit It?

An Adelie penguin in East Antarctica. Credit Pauline Askin/Reuters
An Adelie penguin in East Antarctica. Credit Pauline Askin/Reuters

Antarctica’s Southern Ocean has been exploited for its teeming bounty, from the top of its food chain to the bottom, for more than 200 years. Seal hunters arrived there in the late 1700s and by 1825 fur seals were nearing extinction. Hunters then turned to other seal species, and to penguins, to extract oil from their body fat. Whaling arrived at the turn of the 20th century, with the hunting pressure driving some species from Antarctic waters.

Even krill, the tiny shrimplike creatures that are a key source of food to whales, penguins, seals and seabirds, are being scooped up in hundreds of thousands of tons per year. Now that the continent is undergoing tremendous disruption from the warming climate, strong multilateral action is imperative to protect it and its surrounding seas.

This week, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, comprising 24 nations and the European Union, is meeting in Hobart, Australia, to consider proposals to protect three areas off Antarctica’s coast totaling 1.2 million square miles. Plans for marine reserves off East Antarctica, which offer critical habitat to emperor and Adélie penguins, and in the Weddell Sea, which would shelter whales and penguins, have been on the table for several years, blocked so far by Russia and China. Both of those areas also harbor cold-water corals, glass sponges and other creatures found nowhere else on earth.

Now, a new proposal is up for consideration to establish a marine sanctuary surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. Antarctica is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet and the Peninsula region is facing multiple pressures, including climate change variability, an increase in tourism as well as intense fishing for krill, which has led to starvation among some populations of penguins.

Two years ago, the commission decided to establish the world’s biggest marine reserve, banning commercial fishing in the Ross Sea, an area almost as large as Alaska. And this past summer, five major krill fishing companies, making up 85 percent of the industry in Antarctica, agreed to halt operations in key areas around the Antarctic Peninsula to protect wildlife. The companies also signaled their support for the network of protected areas currently before the commission.

So perhaps the momentum is on Antarctica’s side. We must hope so, or the entire planet stands to lose a great deal. Despite the halting process, the real danger, as we’ve seen in the past, is that we won’t know when to stop extracting Antarctica’s resources. Although the Southern Ocean is part of the high seas, a global commons open to all nations, only a few countries have benefited from its treasure. This is why the commission had pledged to create a network of marine protected areas.

Antarctica’s land mass has proved forbidding since humans first set foot on the continent, but the sea is swarming with life critical to the planet. Indeed, blooms of algae, which supply oxygen to the atmosphere, can be seen from space. And krill, another fundamental cog in the ecosystem that feeds whales, seals, penguin and many fish, have recently been found to behave in a way that accelerates the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. The ecologist Geraint Tarling of the British Antarctic Survey, who documented this phenomenon, said the finding “could equate to krill sequestering 23 million tonnes of carbon to the deep sea each year, equivalent to annual” residential emissions of greenhouse gases from Britain.

Yet these links are fragile. Sylvia Earle, the marine biologist and explorer and member of the conservation group Antarctica 2020, said: “Where we’re headed right now is not very encouraging for mankind. We continue to chew away and carve away at the systems that generate oxygen and capture carbon and maintain the chemistry of the planet that works in our favor.”

The waters and web of life around Antarctica, despite human incursion, are still relatively unspoiled at their foundation. Before this changes, we need to minimize risk to ocean ecosystems and build resilience to climate change by creating marine reserves that strongly protect at least 30 percent of the world’s ocean — starting with the Southern Ocean.

We don’t have much time. In June, Scientific American reported on a study of melting Antarctic ice, noting: “Since 1992, annual ice loss from the Antarctic Peninsula has more than doubled, and it’s tripled in West Antarctica. Much of that increase has occurred in the last five years alone.” Such changes could bring devastating changes to the acidity, salinity and crucial sea ice cover in parts of the Southern Ocean. While it may take many years to slow or halt these or other climate change impacts, creating reserves now at least removes other pressures from marine species, allowing them the chance to adapt and recover.

Action by the international commission this week to protect these three areas would mark significant progress on the long-planned, long-delayed web of marine protected areas as we approach 2020, the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica. Whales, seals and penguins won’t be the only ones to benefit. So will the planet.

José María Figueres was the president of Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998 and is a co-founder of the groups Ocean Unite and Antarctica 2020.

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