For the seventh year in a row, the CCAMLR declined to establish new marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica, despite concern that the melting ice in Antarctica has reached alarming levels, jeopardizing some key populations of penguins, krill, whales, seals and other marine animals.

For the seventh year in a row, the international community has declined to establish new marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica. Scientists, conservationists and some governments have been pushing for greater protections, concerned that the melting of ice in Antarctica has reached alarming levels, jeopardizing the existence of several key animal species in the region. The stalemate comes even as a new threat to wildlife emerged in the region: the discovery last week that a virulent form of avian flu had reached Antarctic bird colonies. 

The 42nd annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the intergovernmental body charged with protecting marine life and managing fisheries in the Southern Ocean, took place Oct. 16-27 in Hobart, Australia, with 26 member countries and the European Union participating. Among other conservation measures, the commission reviewed and voted on proposals to establish new MPAs in East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula, as part of a network of MPAs in the region. If approved, the three new MPAs would cover a total of more than 4.5 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles). It was the seventh consecutive time China and Russia vetoed all attempts to establish new MPAs. 

However, CCAMLR members committed to holding a “special symposium” in July 2024 to discuss how the Antarctic Peninsula MPA, first proposed in 2018 by Chile and Argentina, might be implemented. This MPA would include most of the areas where the region’s main fishery, for krill (Euphausia superba), takes place. A previous CCAMLR special meeting focusing on developing a road map to creating new MPAs, convened in June in Santiago, Chile, failed to make any progress.

The persistent blockade created a climate of anger or frustration among some delegates. “The conference was very disappointing,” Bettina Meyer, Germany’s representative to the CCAMLR’s scientific committee at the recent meeting, told Mongabay by email.      

According to Meyer, the meeting failed not only to achieve any progress on the MPAs, but also to deliver protections for either an endangered subpopulation of Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) on the South Shetland Islands or the world’s biggest colony of fish nests discovered recently in the Weddell Sea. “Russia and China have opposed the implementation of all these kind of protection measures,” she said.

Perennial stalemate

Founded in 1982 with the aim of “conserving Antarctic marine life,” the CCAMLR meets toward the end of each year in Hobart. In 2009, CCAMLR member countries committed to creating “a representative network of MPAs” to preserve Antarctic ecosystems from the threats of climate change and industrial fishing. After establishing MPAs on the southern shelf of the South Orkney Islands that year and in the Ross Sea in 2016, the process ran aground on the CCAMLR’s consensus-based decision-making system, coming up against Russia and China’s systematic veto. 

Both countries have interests in the krill fishery, which China has been investing in for years. Representatives of the Russian and Chinese delegations did not respond to requests from Mongabay to comment on their positions.

The CCAMLR’s paralysis is raising concern about its ability to achieve its mission.

“There is no doubt that CCAMLR meetings have been rather sterile for several years now,” Orazio Guanciale, a diplomat and representative of the Italian delegation at the Hobart meeting, told Mongabay. “There has been no development on marine protected areas, and nothing was expected. It is a topic that unfortunately is dormant for the moment.”

Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean work, said she was “definitely disappointed” in the CCAMLR’s lack of response to the climate crisis affecting the region. “Such a terrible crisis is there, and CCAMLR is not moving fast enough,” she told Mongabay by phone at the end of the meeting.

However, Kavanagh said she welcomed the unanimous commitment from the member countries to meet in July 2024 to discuss the proposed Antarctic Peninsula MPA and to implement a new ecosystem-based krill fishery management approach. “They will not be able to adopt an MPA in July; that is up to the commission. But they will produce a report to show how they plan to implement it, and a plan to move forward,” she said.     

Kavanagh also praised a proposal by Norway to extend the Weddell Sea MPA, proposed by Germany in 2018 and still not approved, by another 720,000 km2 (278,000 mi2), to include two ecologically important areas called Maud Rise and Astrid Ridge.     

Antarctic problems

2023 has been a record year for the impact of global warming on the Antarctic ecosystem. Graphs from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center show how in the last three months sea ice decreased significantly compared with the same period in 2022, which already marked a clear decline compared to the average between 1981 and 2020. In other words, global warming is melting Antarctica’s ice at an increasingly rapid rate, with inevitable consequences for wildlife populations.

According to a study published in August, record-low sea ice in 2022 led to “catastrophic” breeding failure of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri). “If present rates of warming persist, over 90% of emperor colonies will be quasi-extinct by the end of this century,” the study says.

Another study, published this month, shows that after a long period of recovery from intensive hunting, fur seal populations have been declining since 2009 and could collapse further due to the combined effect of the melting ice and decreased availability of krill, their main food.

“The whole world looks to this Commission to preserve Antarctica from the greatest threats of climate change, before it is too late,” the U.S. ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, said in a speech at the beginning of the CCAMLR meeting, according to her published remarks. She spoke of the “dramatic ice melting on the Antarctic Peninsula” and the possible collapse of fur seal populations, and also described the krill fishery as important for “world food security.”

Krill represents the main ingredient in the diets of many of Antarctica’s marine and bird species, including emperor penguins. But krill populations are declining due to climate change and increasing interest from the fishing industry. In 2022, vessels from Chile, China, South Korea, Norway and Ukraine caught 415,508 metric tons of krill, mainly for the production of fish feed and, to a lesser extent, pet food and omega-3 pills for human nutrition.

Recent studies and observations have led to growing concern about the interference of krill fishing with whale populations, because of competition in the feeding grounds.

“We are already seeing effects of a rapidly changing environment on emperor penguins, Antarctic krill, humpback whales and many other vulnerable species,” said Emily Grilly, WWF’s Antarctic conservation manager, in a statement posted just before the conference in Hobart. Between 2007 and 2017, WWF partnered with the Norwegian company Aker BioMarine, the main krill producer globally, but in recent years the NGO has campaigned for improved protections for krill populations.

In recent days, a new threat has emerged in Antarctica: The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus, also known as HPAI H5N1, was detected on Oct. 23 by the British Antarctic Survey on Bird Island, a small island in the Southern Ocean. It’s unknown how many wild birds have already succumbed to this disease globally; The Guardian collated reports of hundreds of thousands of deaths, and there have likely been many more.

“This is an added pressure the region certainly doesn’t need right now,” Grilly said in another statement, at the end of the conference. “CCAMLR needs to help reduce pressure on Antarctic ecosystems by establishing high-level protection measures like no-take MPAs,” she said.

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