The plan to create a 2.3 million square km reserve – the world’s largest – in the Ross Sea was initially put forward in July by the European Union, together with Australia and France on behalf of its overseas territories.
But the proposal was blocked by surprise Russian objections centred on their fishing interests, at a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Bremerhaven, Germany.
US officials have now responded with a revised and humbler plan, which removes protected status from spawning grounds for toothfish and vulnerable Sea Mounts in the Ross Sea’s north.
Some believe that the proposed reserve, which would cover the most pristine and fragile ecosystem left on earth, has fallen victim to bilateral tensions, centred on Syria and Iran.
“Everyone is still a bit mystified by what happened in Bremerhaven,” said Andrea Kavanagh, the director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Southern Ocean Sanctuaries project. “It has been tough to understand exactly what Russia’s intentions and interests are.”
"I do have to speculate that the Ross Sea proposal might be suffering because of the current state of US-Russian relations,” she told EurActiv. If so, it would be a significant departure from how the two countries had worked on Antarctic protection in last 50 years, she added.
“They’ve been good partners and I hope that they don’t lose sight of the larger goal here,” she said.
One Washington official told EurActiv that the new concessions had been made with a view to winning Russian support for the conservation area but that it was not yet clear whether they would be enough to do so.
“Russia has been having troubles with this for the last year or so,” the source said. “I don’t think those other things (Syria, Iran) help but we don’t really know what the core Russian objections are. They say it is because of the science.”
At the July conference in Bremerhaven, Moscow and Kyiv challenged the Commission’s right to declare a protected area, the environmental necessity of doing so, and any protected area's duration, and size.
Bewildering array of sea life
The sea covered by the proposed MPA roughly equals the size of all other reserves created around the world so far and provides a home for a bewildering array of sea life, including:
- Around a million pairs of Adélie penguins
- More than a dozen species of whale
- More than a third of the world's population of emperor penguins
- Abundant krill and fish species
- The toothfish, which can grow to two metres long and weigh 200 kilos
- Colossal squid species that can grow to 14 metres long
In all, the Antarctic waters around the Ross Sea and East Antarctic marine areas make up about 10% of the world's seas and are home to almost 10,000 species.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry told the Pew Charitable Trusts earlier this year that protecting oceans and fisheries such as the Ross Sea was “a challenge to our commitment to science and facts and what we believe in.”
As such, the scaled-down US proposal has irked European diplomats. “Of course we have to find a compromise,” the head of delegation for one EU state told EurActiv.
“But I don’t know if it was appropriate to present this compromise before the negotiations had begun," he added. "We would perhaps have acted differently.”
Washington is keen to point out that although the new plan would no longer create a protected area the size of Alaska, it would still preserve a body of water twice the size of Texas.
“We, like the NGO’s, want a huge marine protection area and [the new proposal] would be a massive step forward for marine conservation,” said Evan Bloom, the director of the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs at the US State Department. “This is really a pathway to success in our view.”
The new proposal will be discussed at a CCAMLR conference in Hobart, Australia next month.