Annual negotiations in Hobart, on the Australian island of Tasmania, are never easy. But the geopolitical tensions of the past few months made this year’s Antarctic conference a gauntlet run. Because among the 26 nations and the European Union that had sent representatives, there were also delegations from Russia, Ukraine and China.
For example, right at the beginning of the meeting, a number of representatives left the room when a member of the Russian delegation spoke, according to the British newspaper “The Guardiansreported. A representative of the German delegation, Bernd Söntgerath from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, then stated again earlier this week that the negotiations would be “extremely difficult, as feared”.
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So the result was perhaps no surprise, but still sobering: for the sixth time in a row there was no agreement on new marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean. At the 41st hearing of the Commission for the Conservation of Living Resources of Antarctica (CCAMLR), Russia and China once again opposed each other.
Southern Ocean: Crucial role for Earth
The Antarctic Commission, which has been meeting in Hobart for the past two weeks, could have put large parts of the Southern Ocean under protection. The targeted protected areas in East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea would have covered almost four million square kilometers and thus one percent of the world’s oceans. In the run-up to the conference, Deutsche Umwelthilfe had already emphasized the crucial role the region plays for the planet. “The Southern Ocean is essential for regulating the climate, the nutrient supply of the seas and as a habitat for an impressive biodiversity,” said Federal Managing Director Sascha Müller-Kraenner.
But despite the importance of the region and the already critical situation in parts – for example, emperor penguins are threatened with extinction due to the effects of climate change – the Russian and Chinese delegations did not want to agree to increased protection. In order to implement the protection zones, all members of the commission should have done so.
“Relenting race against time”
“This year’s negotiations took place under difficult conditions,” said Tim Packeiser, marine conservation expert at WWF Germany. “But protecting the Southern Ocean is a relentless race against time.” It is tragic how member states have been slowed down in their ocean protection efforts for years by Russia and China, both of which fish in the region. “The fundamentals of life are thus falling under the wheels of geopolitical tensions,” said the expert.
Nor could agreement be reached on stricter regulations for krill fishing. “We had hoped that the krill fishery would be further restricted, but that hasn’t happened either,” Packeiser said. If the small crustaceans are scarce, whales, seals and penguins will also find less food.
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Special session planned
All three protected areas would have been supported by the German side. However, the proposal to protect the Weddell Sea, which Germany had developed to a large extent, was particularly emphasized. At around 2.2 million square kilometers, this region would have been the largest marine protected area in the world and could have contributed 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.
The representative of the German delegation, Bernd Söntgerath, was positive about the fact that a resolution on climate change could at least be agreed. “Moreover, against China’s wishes, krill catches have not been increased,” he said. This means that the catch limits from 2022 will also apply in 2023.
In addition, a special meeting is being planned for April or June 2023, at which the existing proposals for protected areas will be discussed again. Chile had invited to Santiago for this, reported Söntgerath. However, it remains to be seen whether Russia and China will ultimately agree to the date.