A plan to convert Antarctica’s Weddell Sea into the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) was rejected during the annual summit of the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Australia. The plan, originally proposed by Germany and backed by the EU, required a unanimous vote from all 25 members of the CCAMLR to pass, but Russia, China, and Norway blocked the proposal.
This MPA would have banned all fishing, commercial activity, and essentially any kind of direct human impact (e.g. oil drilling and deep-sea mining) in the area. Consequently, this would have safeguarded various animal species including penguins, killer whales, blue whales, and leopard seals. The Weddell Sea, alone, is home to 14,000 animal species. The Weddell Sea plan coincided with proposals to establish two other MPAs: in East Antarctica and the Western Antarctic Peninsula. However, both were also scrapped at the summit. Altogether, the three MPAs would have covered nearly 3 million square km, making a significant contribution to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Protecting Antarctic waters, where 70% of Earth’s freshwater is contained in the region’s cryosphere, is of vital importance as Antarctic ocean water is oxygen-rich, driving circulation of nutrients and absorption of substantial quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As such, there is tremendous backlash from environmental groups and activists, who garnered over 2 million signatures for a petition in support of the sanctuary.
This comes after WWF and the UN released scientific research putting into perspective Earth’s vulnerable state. In summation, the WWF reports that human activity has led to the extinction of 60% of wild animal populations since 1970. The UN report warns that there are 12 years left to prevent catastrophic and irreversible environmental degradation.
Unfortunately, it seems that in the realm of policymaking, science is inadequate. Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Arctic campaign claims that “China and Russia…deployed delaying tactics such as wrecking amendments and filibustering, which meant there was barely any time left for real discussion about protecting Antarctic waters.” Norway, on the other hand, put forward amendments of the proposal that would divide the area in two. There was hope that China and Russia would vote in favour of the proposal as the two countries played a significant role in the approval of CCAMLR’s Ross Sea MPA in 2016. China is also often touted for its initiatives to implement policies and innovations protecting the climate, including banning foreign waste and investing large sums of money in renewable energy which has made the country the largest investor in the industry. Despite this, it seems that capitalist temptations of exploiting Antarctica’s krill fishing industry eclipse environmental concerns. There are also disagreements behind the effectiveness or necessity of MPAs.
CCAMLR claims that they will continue to push for MPAs. However, one is left to question the efficiency of policymakers in this matter. Are environmental issues better addressed in the “radical” ways of the grassroots level? Are politicians inherently swayed by the private interests of donors? The interest in krill signals that this is the case. Antarctica is one of the Earth’s most significant ecosystems, largely because of its harsh conditions that have deterred human interference. It is not claimed by any state, and is thus, it is a global commons that must be protected for the benefit of all humanity and life on Earth. If there is any takeaway from recent news, it is that we are in a race against time and as such, public pressure on policymaking is of utmost importance.
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