The world is finally uniting to save the environment. On October 5, the United Nations announced that the threshold to enforce the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement had been met, paving the way for its implementation starting November 4. On Friday, October 28 came additional good news. After five years of negotiations, representatives of 24 nations and the European Union agreed on a landmark deal to establish the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica.
While the unanimous agreement that covers 600,000 square miles (twice the size of the state of Texas) of Antarctica’s Ross Sea, is less than the 875,000 square miles proposed by the USA and New Zealand in 2011, it is being hailed as a victory by environmentalists. That’s because the protected region often called the 'Garden of Eden', is considered by experts to be the least altered marine environments on Earth. Ross Sea’s nutrient-rich waters that are abundant with plankton and krill, support over 16,000 species of marine animals, including the Ross Sea orcas, Adélie penguins, emperor penguins, and Antarctic minke whales.
Under the terms of the agreement, starting December 2017, about 72% of the Ross Sea will be a “no-take” zone, which means everything from mineral mining to fishing is prohibited. The remaining 28% has been designated as a research area and will be open for fishing provided it is for scientific research.
Officials of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), say this will allow researchers to compare the impact on marine life between the protected and open zones. They believe the results will enable scientists to understand the different factors that affect the status and health of the marine ecosystems.
What makes this deal even more historic is that this is only the second time the world has come together to create an MPA. The first, signed in 2009, covers about 17,000 square miles of Antarctica’s South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf. A recent inspection of the area by an international team led by the British Antarctic Survey revealed that the protection measures are working. The scientists reported many new species of coral and anemones and also a vast increase in the population of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VME), both in the MPA and surrounding areas.
Environmentalists believe that the same will be the case for the Ross Sea. While there is some concern that the deal is valid for just 35 years, experts hope that it will be extended indefinitely once there is evidence of its success. Though the two MPA’s are a great start, there is more to be done. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups and individuals formed to campaign the creation of marine protected areas, believes that 40 percent of the Southern Ocean should be designated a “no-take” zone.
While protecting the waters around the Antarctica can only be done with consensus from the member nations that monitor the region, countries are free to designate MPA’s in their territorial waters. In August, President Obama increased the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands from 140,000 square miles to 582,578 square miles of land and sea, making it the second-largest MPA in the world. Hopefully, more nations will follow his lead and help protect our increasingly fragile environment.
Resources: asoc.org,wired.co.uk, zmescience.com, CCAMLR.