MPA Perspective: United States Proposes MPA in Antarctica’s Ross Sea Region

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By Evan T. Bloom

[Editor's note: Evan Bloom is the Director of the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs at the US Department of State, and is the US representative to CCAMLR.]

As one of the nations with vital and active interests in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic, the United States is an active member of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR), the international body responsible for managing marine living resources in the waters around Antarctica.  On 7 September 2012, to advance marine conservation, protection, and scientific research in one of the last great ocean wilderness areas on the planet, the United States submitted a proposal to CCAMLR to establish a marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea Region. 


The Ross Sea: one of the last great ocean wilderness areas

The Ross Sea Region is an area of significant, long-term scientific investment by the United States and other countries, revealing a tremendous base of knowledge about the region's ecosystems, as compared to other Antarctic marine areas.  The Ross Sea continental shelf is known to encompass the most productive ecosystems of the Southern Ocean, supporting abundant marine life and, unlike most places on the planet, retaining its full community of top-level predators. 

Long-term datasets on the region's geology, oceanography, climatology, and biology provide a robust characterization of a region with astounding ecological value, biological productivity, and biodiversity.  For example, the Ross Sea is home to over one-third of the world's Adélie penguins, one-quarter of the world population of Emperor penguins, half of the Southern Pacific population of Weddell seals, and half of the world's Ross Sea killer whales. 

These remarkable scientific, biodiversity, and ecosystem characteristics make the Ross Sea Region an area of tremendous conservation and scientific value for current and future generations, and an exceptional candidate for the establishment of an MPA.  A science-based MPA would protect these ecosystems and safeguard this extremely valuable scientific reference area for research and monitoring, particularly related to long-term climate and environmental change.  Furthermore, the Southern Ocean is one of the best places to promote the establishment of MPAs beyond national jurisdiction because, compared to most other areas on the planet, it has very limited vessel traffic and other human impacts. 


Proposal for a Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area

After extensive scientific analysis and consultation with stakeholders and other CCAMLR Member countries, the United States submitted a proposal to CCAMLR for an MPA in the Ross Sea designed to balance ecosystem protection, scientific research, and commercial fishing interests in the region.  The proposed MPA would encompass roughly 1.8 million km2 (700,000 square miles), which would be one of the largest MPAs on Earth, and include areas that support essential ecosystem processes and are critical to whales, seals, penguins, commercially valuable and other fish stocks, and the species they feed upon. 

Designed to achieve protection and scientific objectives while allowing some fishing to occur in certain areas of the MPA, the MPA would consist of three zones.  A large area of the Southern Ross Sea - covering approximately 800,000 km2 - would be established as a fully protected no-fishing zone to preserve the ecosystem and serve as a scientific reference area for studying the ecosystem effects of fishing and climate change.  In the other two zones, some fishing would be allowed with restrictions on species, gear type, and season to protect critical habitat and spawning fish stocks.  Fishing activities outside the MPA would continue as currently permitted. 


CCAMLR's commitment to a representative system of Antarctic MPAs

CCAMLR was formed in 1982 with the objective of conserving Antarctic marine life, and its 25 members, including the United States, make conservation and ocean management decisions through unanimous consent of all its members.  The US delegation to CCAMLR, led by the Department of State, also includes representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the US Marine Mammal Commission, and is advised by non-governmental representatives from the fishing industry and conservation organizations.

CCAMLR is often viewed as a leader among regional marine resource management organizations for its precautionary, ecosystem approach to management.  In 2010, the Commission officially recognized the important role that MPAs should play in conserving Antarctic marine biodiversity and endorsed a work program to develop a representative system of Antarctic MPAs.  Through robust scientific analysis the Commission subdivided the Convention Area into eight subareas for planning and reporting on the development of MPAs, one of which is the Ross Sea Region.

CCAMLR will consider the US and other member proposals at its next meeting in October 2012 in Hobart, Australia.  In order for proposals to be approved, all CCAMLR members must agree.  The United States intends to engage with all CCAMLR Members to consider our proposal and advance meaningful protection for one of the last unspoiled marine ecosystems on the planet. 


For more information:

Evan T. Bloom, US Department of State. Email: bloomet [at] state [dot] gov
Jonathan Kelsey, US Department of State. Email: kelseyj [at] state [dot] gov



BOX: Could competing proposals for a giant MPA in Antarctic waters cancel each other out?

Officials from the US and New Zealand governments spent the past two years developing a proposal for an enormous MPA to cover the Ross Sea in Antarctica.  The joint plan was to be submitted to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), where it would have required unanimous approval of the 25 member states to take effect.

However, in September 2012 the New Zealand government backed away from the joint plan and instead introduced its own proposal to CCAMLR.  Without a compromise proposal, the US submitted its own proposal as well, which is described in the essay above by Evan Bloom.  Although the two plans are similar in terms of total area covered, they differ in the area they protect from fishing.  The US's proposed no-take area would protect key habitats in some of the main toothfish fishing areas, thus displacing that fishing to other parts of the Ross Sea.  In contrast, New Zealand's proposed MPA would allow current toothfish fishing activity to continue where it is.  (New Zealand has a toothfish fishing fleet; the US does not.)

With competing proposals now before CCAMLR, the requirement for unanimous consent by its membership is likely to present more of a challenge.  The Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a consortium of major conservation NGOs, says the dueling proposals pose the threat of a "train wreck" at CCAMLR negotiations in October (http://antarcticocean.org/2012/09/critical-habitats-missing-from-nz-ross-sea-marine-reserve-proposal/).

The New Zealand proposal is at www.mfat.govt.nz/ross-sea-mpa/docs/New%20Zealand's%20full%20proposal.pdf

The US proposal is at www.state.gov/documents/organization/197887.pdf

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