Antarctic Conference: Marine protection zones – no agreement in sight so far

Emperor penguins are now in danger of extinction due to the effects of climate change, the Thwaites glacier could collapse. The news from Antarctica is getting more and more dramatic. “By 2030, at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans would have to be protected in order to avert the consequences of the climate crisis and to preserve biodiversity,” said Sascha Müller-Kraenner, Federal Director of German Environmental Aid.

A big step in that direction could come later this week during the Antarctic Conference in Hobart. Because the conference is about the establishment of protected areas in East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea, which would cover a total of four million square kilometers and thus a good one percent of the world’s oceans. According to Müller-Kraenner, the establishment of these three marine protected areas would be exactly the kind of measure that is now needed worldwide.

Principle of unanimity as a stumbling block

But the current geopolitical tensions could once again thwart the negotiations. A total of 26 nations and the European Union are represented at the 41st hearing of the Commission for the Conservation of Living Resources of Antarctica (CCAMLR). In addition to representatives from Germany, Australia, Great Britain and the USA, delegations from Russia, Ukraine and China also came.

In the earlier years, Russia and China mostly opposed each other, because voting takes place under the principle of unanimity. This year will also include bridging tensions between Russia and Ukraine, which have been at war since the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February this year. Just a few weeks ago, bombs fell on the office of the National Antarctic Science Center of Ukraine in Kyiv, partially destroying it.

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Negotiations “extremely difficult”

Although little is ever leaked out of the negotiations, the war in Europe will no doubt change the tone. A number of representatives left the room at the beginning of the meeting when a member of the Russian delegation spoke, as an article in the British newspaper “The Guardians” was called. A representative of the German delegation, Bernd Söntgerath from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, said on Tuesday that the negotiations would be “extremely difficult, as feared”. He emphasized that in addition to efforts at the high and highest political and diplomatic levels, a CCAMLR special session on establishing marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean may also be necessary. “Should it not be possible to make substantial progress at the current CCAMLR annual meeting, it would be very important that we can agree on such a special meeting in 2023 in the upcoming negotiations.”

However, the hope of an agreement should not be completely buried. Because there have been times when nations have been able to put politics aside in the name of conservation. As early as 1959, at the height of the Cold War, the Antarctic Treaty was signed, which envisaged turning the icy continent into a zone for peace and scientific cooperation. However, the treaty does not protect the sea around Antarctica. But here, too, an important breakthrough was achieved in 2016. At that time, the commission had agreed to declare around 1.55 million square kilometers in the Ross Sea off the southern coast of Antarctica – an area about four times the size of Germany – a protection zone. The historic agreement, which went into effect in December 2017, was a first victory for the region’s diverse wildlife: more than 10,000 animal species including penguins, whales, seabirds, squid, bony fish, seals and Antarctic krill benefited from the decision at the time.

urgency increases

Meanwhile, climate change increases the urgency to protect even more Antarctic waters. Because the rising temperatures are already leading to the rapid melting of the ice shelves. Particularly at risk is Thwaites Glacier, whose collapse would massively change the earth as we know it. Because the loss of the glacier, which at 192,000 square kilometers is almost the size of Great Britain, would cause sea levels to rise globally by around 65 centimeters.

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International fishing also endangers the continued existence of the important Antarctic ecosystem, according to the German Environmental Aid. The role of the Southern Ocean for the earth is often underestimated, said Federal Managing Director Müller-Kraenner. However, it is crucial: “The Southern Ocean is essential for regulating the climate, the nutrient supply of the seas and as a habitat for an impressive biodiversity.”

All three protected areas are supported by the German side. However, the proposal to protect the Weddell Sea, which Germany played a key role in developing, is particularly emphasized. With around 2.2 million square kilometers, this region would be the largest marine protected area in the world and would contribute to the goal of protecting 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. In addition, the Weddell Sea is a unique ecosystem and home to around 14,000 different species of animals, many of which only exist there.

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