Countries fail to agree on Antarctic conservation measures for fifth straight year

For the fifth year in a row, a council of nations involved in Antarctic fishing operations have failed to agree on new conservation measures which experts had hoped would protect the Southern Ocean from overfishing.

Mt Herschel, Antarctica. Image: Andrew Mandemaker, CC BY-SA 2.5.

For the fifth year in a row, a council of nations involved in Antarctic fishing operations have failed to agree on new conservation measures which experts had hoped would protect the Southern Ocean from overfishing, particularly of the keystone krill species. 

Members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the body responsible for Antarctic marine conservation, were not able to agree on new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Weddell Sea, the Antarctic Peninsula and in East Antarctica, the latter of which was first proposed in 2011. 

“I am very disappointed with how CCAMLR is evolving,” said Rodolfo Werner, senior advisor for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. “[Members] are playing with words and not agreeing over and over on conservation measures.”

The annual meetings, which normally take place in Hobart, Australia, were held online for the second year in a row due to Covid-19 restrictions. In its 40th year, CCAMLR’s 26 members — 25 countries and the EU — met to convene on matters related to the management and protection of the Southern Ocean.

Despite 11 days of negotiations, this year’s meetings, which ended on Friday, have frustrated both scientists and NGOs urging member countries to address fishing activity in the Antarctic and the climate crisis.

“I am saddened that CCAMLR was unable to agree on new MPAs again this year. We are facing a global biodiversity and climate crisis and the many unique species of the Antarctic are experiencing one of the most rapidly changing climates on earth,” said Nicole Bransome, an officer for the Southern Ocean with The Pew Charitable Trusts.  

The three MPA designations — proposed by CCAMLR members and developed with its own Scientific Committee — would have covered more than 3.7 million square kilometres of the Southern Ocean, creating the world’s largest protected area against fishing activity. 

Conservationists and marine experts have been particularly worried by the increase in Antarctic krill fishing by several countries — many of whom were part of the CCAMLR meeting — driven by global demand for premium krill oil supplements.

Prior to this year’s meetings, CCAMLR members including India, South Korea, Ukraine, Norway, and Uruguay agreed to MPAs in East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea. The US also voiced its support for MPAs in April this year.

But at this year’s meetings, China and Russia blocked all proposals, pushing instead to maintain their fishing rights.

Both countries, who have a history of opposing MPAs, have been stepping up their presence in the Antarctic fishery. Russia announced they are investing US$640m into krill fishing, and within a single year, China more than doubled its catch, from 50,423 tonnes in 2019 to 118,353 in 2020, according to CCAMLR reports. 

“I am surprised that both China and Russia continue to be inflexible in their position on CCAMLR creating new Southern Ocean MPAs. Both are members of CCAMLR, an organisation whose primary objective is conservation,” said Bransome.

Krill are the most abundant species in the world, with a biomass of 400m tonnes in the Antarctic. As the main food source for most wildlife in the region including whales, penguins and seals, any disruption to krill populations will ripple across the ecosystem.

“The Antarctic Peninsula where the krill fishery operates is one of the fastest warming places on earth, and we know that warming is and will continue to have negative effects on krill,” said Bransome.

Krill are integral in influencing atmospheric carbon levels, and have the capacity to remove up to 12bn tonnes of carbon every year from the Earth’s atmosphere.

In the past decade, krill have been most commonly harvested as aquaculture feed, fish bait, and, more recently, krill oil dietary supplements. 

“The majority of the Southern Ocean food web feeds on swarms of Antarctic krill. Competition for krill is increasing as the human demand for krill products increases,” said Bransome.

The expanding Antarctic krill fishery now includes 14 vessels, mostly operating in Area 48, an immensely biodiverse region that is home to more than 62m tonnes of krill.

Studies have shown that krill are facing increasing difficulty in replenishing their population and maintaining high numbers close to Area 48. 

In 2010, CCAMLR created a conservation measure to spread a catch limit of 620,000 tonnes across four areas, due to concerns highlighted by conservationists about the amount of concentrated fishing happening. 

This conservation measure, CM 51-07, was set to expire in 2021, but after much anticipation, CCAMLR members decided at this year’s meeting to renew catch limits for Area 48 for another year.

“Although CM 51-07 is the best we have, it is not sufficient to avoid concentrated fishing,” said Werner.  

This year’s krill catches in Area 48 reached 338,511 tonnes in September. Last year’s annual catch of 450,781 tonnes — the highest level since the 1990s — was double what it was five years ago. The duration in which the krill was caught this year was also much shorter, taking 69 days compared to the 130-day average. 

Once catch limits are reached in Area 48, all krill fishing must stop until the next year. This year will mark the eighth time the catch limit has been hit in Area 48’s most fragile section, subarea 48.1, where colonies of penguins and seals live close to the shore. 

Currently, only 5 per cent of the Southern Ocean is protected; the first MPA was established in the southern part of the South Orkney Islands in 2009 and was followed by a marine park in the Ross Sea region in 2016, which was finally agreed to by China and Russia after vetoing it for four years

This year’s designations for MPAs would also have significantly advanced growing calls to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030. 

“As nations around the globe make strong commitments to respond to the climate crisis and conserve our ocean, CCAMLR continues to lag behind,” said Emily Grilly, Antarctic Conservation Manager at WWF. “The world is watching — it’s time to step up and honour commitments to conserve Antarctica for the future.”

This article was originally published on Environmental Reporting Collective under a Creative Commons licence.

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