What happens when we aren’t looking? When we don’t even know we should be looking?
On July 15–16, 2013, representatives from 24 countries and the European Union will convene in Bremerhaven, Germany, to decide whether to protect the most pristine marine ecosystem on Earth, the Southern Ocean.
The meeting to determine the fate of the Southern Ocean will be only the second time in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources’ 32-year history it has met outside its normal annual meeting. The result of this relatively off-the-radar gathering could well determine the fate of the world’s fish supply.
A proposal from Australia, France and the European Union calls for a system of marine protected areas in East Antarctica, while a proposal from the U.S. and New Zealand calls for a protected area in the Ross Sea that would cover roughly 2.3 million square kilometers. If adopted, the latter will create the largest marine protected area in the world.
Even if the two proposals are passed, though, they leave large swaths of ocean open for industrial fishing and insufficient protection for important spawning and research areas. While the proposals would be an improvement, they may not be enough.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, upwards of “85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits.” The industrial fishing industry has had to travel further and further south to search for new sources of fish, but on a finite planet, the seas surrounding Antarctica are as far south as you can go.
The Ross Sea is home to close to 10,000 species, many of which exist only in Antarctica and surrounding waters — Emperor penguins, Weddell seals, southern right whales, Antarctic toothfish and colossal squid, to name a few. A decline in fish will also likely mean that mammals depending on them will decline in numbers as well, and the true extent of potential damage is not known.
While an existing treaty protects natural resources on Antarctica, at least until 2041, it does not extend to the surrounding oceans. And according to the Pew Environment Initiative, three quarters of the world’s marine life is sustained by nutrient-rich waters from the Southern Ocean spread around the globe by Antarctic currents. So this is not simply an issue restricted to Antarctica.
With short-term profits to be made from fishing and the demand for Antarctic toothfish (Chilean sea bass), mostly from U.S. restaurants, many countries might not make the wise choice. The tourism industry, which also provides significant income to countries such as New Zealand and Chile, would be adversely affected by overfishing, but demand for seafood seems to be outweighing this concern at the moment.
As the decision day approaches for the CCAMLR, the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a group of 30 environmental organizations and individuals working together for large-scale protection for key Antarctic Ocean ecosystems, is hoping to get 300,000 signatures on a petition calling on the CCAMLR to establish a network of marine protected areas and reserves. As of this writing it has slightly over 213,000, with only two weeks to go.
If people around the world add their voice, the 25 key decision makers might be persuaded to vote in the interest of the long-term health of the planet instead of the short-term economic benefit of a few. These decision makers need to know the world is watching. The two Southern Ocean proposals aren’t perfect, but they represent major progress in the protection of the global ocean ecosystem and humanity’s fish supply.