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A lost opportunity for sustainable ocean management

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By Philip Mladenov

A swarm of Krill fish

Russia has recently blocked the creation of two of the world’s largest marine protected areas at a special meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Bremerhaven. These marine reserves would have been massive — covering more than 3.5 million square kilometres of the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. This represents a tragic lost opportunity to forge a seminal deal in support of international ocean conservation — a deal which would have established the foundations for a more rational approach to how we manage our ocean environments.

To put this lost opportunity into perspective, it is first important to acknowledge that there has been exploitation of Southern Ocean marine resources for hundreds of years, which belies the commonly espoused notion that Antarctica possesses one of the planet’s last pristine marine systems. Southern Ocean marine mammals were ruthlessly exploited in the past. Fur seal hunting began in the late 1700s and by 1830 most fur seal colonies had been exterminated or reduced to a size where it was uneconomical to continue to hunt them. Antarctic whaling commenced in the early 1900s, initially targeting humpback whales, then spreading rapidly to other species. In the years before the Second World War tens of thousands of whales were taken annually — some 631,518 whales were officially recorded killed in the period between 1956 and 1965 alone. The industry collapsed in the 1960s when it became uneconomical to hunt the remnant populations of whales that remained.

The exploitation of Antarctic marine species then moved down the food web to target smaller animals. Commercial fishing began in the late 1960s, first focussed on species such as the mackerel icefish. In the 1980s fishing vessels began to exploit the Patagonian toothfish at depths of around 1,000 metres. This fishery has recently expanded to a related species, the Antarctic toothfish. Antarctic toothfish are food for sperm whales, killer whales, Weddell seals and large squid, so their removal will potentially impact on these dependent species. Even the krill in the Southern Ocean — the core of the food web — are subject to human exploitation. Antarctic krill fishing began in the 1970s and by the early 1980s about half a million tonnes were being harvested annually. Catches then declined to around 100,000 tonnes per year as most nations abandoned the fishery because of the high cost of operating in the Southern Ocean. However, the demand for krill appears to be increasing again. Krill are being caught, and processed into fish meal, and used as a source of health food supplements, such as omega-3 oils.

A group of crabeater seals

This litany of human impacts has undoubtedly pushed the Antarctic marine system out of its natural equilibrium, although it has been difficult to document the changes because of Antarctica’s remoteness and the lack of an historical baseline of what is “natural” in the Southern Ocean. That being said, no parts of the Global Ocean are anymore pristine and, compared to other parts of the Global Ocean, the Southern Ocean remains a relatively healthy and intact ecosystem in a state of recovery and one well worthy of having significant areas placed under international protection. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, conservation of parts of the Southern Ocean will contribute to a much needed global system of marine protected areas that will pay big dividends in future in terms of sustainable production of seafood for a rapidly growing human population. This is because marine protected areas are beneficial to the recovery of commercial fisheries through “spill over” effects.

It is sobering to compare the efforts we put into protection of terrestrial environments compared to marine environments. We take national and regional parks and protected areas on land for granted as a prudent requirement for preservation of significant and representative areas of terrestrial wildlife and landscape in the face of growing human pressures. At this time about 12% of the planet’s land area is now under some form of protection. The corresponding figure for the oceans is well less than 1%, with most of this area still open to some form of exploitation. The area of the oceans where human exploitation is completely restricted is miniscule, consisting of a small number of scattered “no-take” marine reserves.

Humpback Whales in the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

How much of the Global Ocean do we need to protect in order to allow sufficient over-exploited marine systems to recover and contribute to a more sustainable marine harvest? The consensus among marine scientists is that somewhere in the vicinity of 20%-40% of the oceans need to be protected to maximise the amount of food we can harvest from the oceans. This means we would need roughly 50 times the area presently under protection.

The actions of Russia were thus very unfortunate and well out of step with what is required to begin to manage our oceans sustainably. No one is really sure why the Russian delegation acted to block this important initiative but it can be speculated that their mandate was to protect Russian fishing interests in the Southern Ocean. A concerted effort is now required to ensure that Russia will have a change of heart when the proposal for protection of parts of the Southern Ocean is considered again at the next meeting of CCAMLR in Hobart in November.

Philip V. Mladenov is the Director of Seven Seas Consulting Ltd and Chief Executive of the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand. He has more than 35 years of professional experience in marine biological research, teaching, and exploration. He is the author of Marine Biology: A Very Short Introduction and  some 80 scientific papers and a broad range of popular articles, consulting reports, and government reviews. You can also read his previous post on seamount ecosystems.

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Image credits: (1) Krill Swarm, By Jamie Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; (2) Crabeater Seals in the Lemaire Channel Antarctica; (3) Humpback Whales in the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica: both by Liam Quinn from Canada [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

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