Little progress for new protected marine areas in Antarctica | Polarjournal
A proposal for a protected zone around a newly discovered icefish breeding area in the Weddell Sea was rejected, as were the other new MPA around Antarctica. Image: AWI OFBS Team PS124

The protection and sustainable use of Antarctica is actually a commitment of all nations that have ratified the Antarctic Treaty and joined the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources CCAMLR. But that seems to be the only thing that CCAMLR members actually seem to agree on. For years, the establishment of new, extensive protected areas has been the subject of debate at the Commission’s annual meetings. Again this year, it was one of several discussion points.

Some long-time CCAMLR member representatives at this year’s meeting probably felt like Bill Murray in his 1993 blockbuster “Groundhog Day”: as always since 2016, the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at various locations around Antarctica was discussed, new research data presented, proposals on management and potential use by fisheries debated, only to be rejected again in the end by one or two “no” votes. And again, it was the same countries that had used the CCAMLR voting system of requiring all decisions to be unanimous, and caused the proposals to fail. “China and Russia have different views than the rest of the members,” said Orazio Guanicale, the Italian representative in an interview with the platform “Mongabay”. “The Antarctic Treaty System provides for rigorous application of the consensus principle. If one does not agree, it is rejected and one has to get over it.”. At least agreement was reached to hold a special meeting in Chile next year to implement MPA proposals. In addition, eight areas in the Antarctic Peninsula region were protected from bottom trawling.

However, the establishment of new protected areas was only one of the points on which the representatives could not agree. Management measures in the krill fishery, a key aspect of CCAMLR, especially along the Antarctic Peninsula, and a protected zone that should have been established there for krill, also failed to gain the necessary unanimity. Again, China and Russia had refused to agree, seeing too great restrictions on their krill fisheries. This is all the more remarkable because while Russia has always talked about resuming its krill fishing activity since 2010, it is actually mainly Norway and China that account for the bulk of the krill catch in the region. And Norway had supported the proposal, as had other states that have fisheries in the region. CCAMLR writes in this regard that they have discussed a work plan based on the latest scientific data, catch quota proposals, and protection and management measures, and that work is continuing. In the meantime, limits on krill fishing in the region will be extended for one year, according to the CCAMLR website.

Each member country chairs the CCAMLR for two years, and now that it has been Sweden, the Ukrainian representative in Chile, Vitalii Tsymbaliuk, will be the next to head the commission. Image: Ukrainian Mission Chile

The failure again this year to reach agreement on CCAMLR’s core tasks left some representatives with a great deal of frustration. U.S. representative Monica Medina, in particular, had strong words for the blocking states during her address: “Countries that have prioritized their individual needs have weakened our ability to meet the shared conservation objectives on which this body was founded.” NGOs such as the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition ASOC, which attend meetings as observers and lobby for protected areas, also expressed disappointment. That is why a proposal was also submitted to the Commission to explore alternatives to the current consensus principle in decision-making. “The consensus mechanism works only if negotiations are conducted in good faith and with the goal of reaching agreement through compromise,” the proposal states.

In general, the current geopolitical situation was noticeable at this year’s meeting. Australian media reported that during the Russian commissioner’s address, more than 20 representatives of other nations left the hall in protest. And in a communiqué , the U.S. Department of the Interior strongly condemned Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine alongside its stonewalling on Marine Protected Areas and management decisions. How the fact that the presidency of the Commission will go to Ukraine next will affect the decisions remains to be seen. But it appears that the geopolitical situation and increasing economic considerations are no more tolerant of a compromise decision in a body based on consensus than previous attempts to better protect Antarctica.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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