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The Ross Sea: one last chance to get it right

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Dr Cat Dorey, from Greenpeace International, looks at some of the potential hazards for Antarctica’s Ross Sea. The Ross Sea is a pristine wilderness, one of the last on the planet. It is, of course, hard to get to the driest, coldest, windiest continent but, as fish stocks around the globe become ever-more depleted, eyes turn to places never before considered.

Some 750,000 different species of life inhabit the Southern Ocean, many of which are found in the Ross Sea. There are around eight countries that regularly send ships to this area to fish for toothfish (Australia has fisheries in the Antarctic, but not yet in the Ross Sea). Fishing only takes place in summer once the thick winter ice has melted enough to allow access.

The Ross Sea is home to large populations of crabeater and Weddell seals, minke whales and orcas, and the awesome, but rarely seen, colossal squid. In summer, the area is home to 38% of the world’s Adélie penguins, 26% of the world’s Emperor penguins and 30% of the world’s petrels. Beneath the surface, there is also an entire group of unusual fish (notothenoids) with antifreeze in their blood, which are an important source of food for many of these animals. This includes the giant Antarctic toothfish that grow up to two metres long, and are a favourite meal for orcas and Weddell seals.

The area is as uniquely important as the Galapagos Islands and Africa’s Rift Lakes but the Ross Sea does not have World Heritage protection. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, which has some 100 members from non-government organisations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) is asking scientists to sign a statement supporting the protection of the Ross Sea.

At present, the protection offered by the Antarctic Treaty System governs a ban on mining, military operations, drilling and dumping. The treaty does not provide full protection for the wildlife in the ocean around Antarctica, although some protection is given by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (known as CCAMLR, pronounced ka-mel-ar), which is a progressive fisheries management body. CCAMLR does not, however, have the resources to patrol all of the vast Southern Ocean and illegal operators take advantage of this. Illegal fishing makes it very difficult manage fisheries sustainably, especially for the two commercially (and ecologically) valuable toothfish species, which have been overfished in many areas of the Antarctic.

CCAMLR is currently meeting in Hobart and is looking at areas that need protection, including the Ross Sea. The Antarctic is also a temporary home to scientists visiting from 176 different research institutions from over 28 countries. Scientists describe the Ross Sea as “a living laboratory” because its marine ecosystem has seen so little damage. Only the blue and fin whales have disappeared due to whaling. Everything else is relatively untouched and, while there have been moves to protect specific Antarctic locations like the Ross Sea, such consensus negotiations are difficult when nations do not want to cede their rights to fishing and fisheries.

One area, south of the South Orkney Islands, was given protection in 2009, and it is hoped others will follow soon. A group of scientists, known as the Friends of the Ross Sea Ecosystem (FORSE), have established a website called The Last Ocean (www.lastocean.com) which displays some of the breathtaking beauty of the area, all photographed and filmed. Greenpeace International has a report, Defending the Last Ocean, on its website http://www.greenpeace.org which asks retailers and chefs to help protect the Ross Sea by not selling toothfish, which is often sold as ‘Chilean seabass'.

The Greenpeace International website also has a focus on marine reserves. These areas are the National Parks for our seas and oceans, but currently less than 0.5% of our marine environment is protected. There are legally binding international agreements to protect the world’s oceans but they are lagging behind their goals by a long way, and they need the boost that often comes from the public, especially from local coastal communities.

Those areas that have already been protected have often had an engaged community fighting for them, and Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a leading example. Recently the United States has protected two large areas of the Pacific, the United Kingdom has protected the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, and Kiribati has protected the Phoenix Islands.

One advantage of the marine reserves is that as the ecosystem recovers and fish numbers increase, fishermen are able to catch more fish in areas next to the reserves than they used to. If we want healthy and abundant oceans in the future, we really need to give them the protection they need now.

It seems we must now take stock of the Ross Sea.

Text: V.B. November 2010

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