Penguin Bummer: Russia Freezes Plan for Antarctic Marine Reserve

A proposal to establish the world’s biggest marine sanctuary dies a Russian death.
A large iceberg in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. (Kim Westerskov/Getty)
Jul 17, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Lately, the Russian government seems to be irritating pretty much everyone. After President Vladimir Putin signed a new law that criminalizes homosexual “propaganda” aimed at minors, a petition was started in the U.S. to get American gay bars to stop selling Russian vodka. And of course, the Obama administration, and some of the American public, is none too pleased that Edward Snowden is still hanging out at Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Now, add environmentalists to the list.

We reported last month that the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which has voting membership in 24 countries, was contemplating the creation of the world's biggest marine sanctuary in the Antarctic.

It was looking likely that one of the two proposals before the commission would pass. One was a joint U.S./New Zealand initiative to designate a Ross Sea marine-protected area (MPA) of 2.3 million square kilometres. Another proposal, from Australia, France and the European Union, would designate a cluster of seven MPAs in East Antarctica, covering about 1.63 million square kilometres.

Then along came the Russian delegation, which blocked both proposals, with some support from Ukraine. It seems that Russia decided to raise legal issues questioning whether the CCAMLR has the authority to establish MPAs.

Steve Campbell of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA) called the Russian delegation’s blocking of the proposals, “the loss of an extraordinary opportunity to protect the global marine environment for future generations.”   

He tells TakePart: “After two years of preparation, including this meeting, which Russia requested to settle the scientific case for the Ross Sea and East Antarctic proposals, we leave with nothing. All members, except Russia, came to this meeting to negotiate in good faith.”

Others echoed Campbell’s sentiment. In an AOA press release, Andrea Kavanagh, of The Pew Charitable Trusts, said: “The actions of the Russian delegation have stalled progress on protecting the Ross Sea and East Antarctica, and have put international cooperation and goodwill at risk, two key ingredients needed for global marine conservation...It is imperative that countries send their representatives back to the table in Hobart three months from now to find consensus to protect marine life in Antarctic waters and safeguard some of the most pristine ocean areas on Earth.”

As we detailed last year, there are three key reasons why conservationists are motivated to create the park:

— Adelié and emperor penguins, Antarctic petrels and minke whales, Ross Sea killer whales, colossal squid and Weddell seals all thrive in this inhospitable climate.

— 85 percent of the world's fisheries are classified as over exploited, fully exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, so commercial fishing vessels are moving to remote waters such as Antarctica's in search of fish (according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization).

— Then there's krill, an essential part of the food chain that supports the region's whales, penguins, seals, fish and birdlife. Growing demand for krill as a health supplement and as food for fish farms has put it at risk. Climate change has already been linked to a significant decline in krill numbers—up to 80 percent in one region around the Scotia Sea (Atkinson et al 2004).

Whether the other CCAMLR members can work constructively with Russia to find a way to establish MPAs at their October meeting is a wide-open question.

So far, finding a solution—or even a middle ground—isn’t working out too well for gay activists or the Obama administration.

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