Are the seas around Antarctica protected and reserved for future generations by the Antarctic Treaty? The answer is unfortunately no. The Southern Ocean, the planet’s least polluted aquatic ecosystem, is threatened by the fishing industry and its increasing ambition for toothfish and krill.

In 1982, after the beginning of the exploitation of krill, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established in order to conserve the Antarctic marine flora and fauna. CCAMLR is responsible for regulating the fishing of the species of the Southern Ocean, especially toothfish, crab and krill (an essential link in the food chain of the main animals of the Antarctic fauna). This organization is composed of 24 members and all decisions are taken by unanimity.

In 2009, New Zealand and the United States submitted to the CCAMLR a proposal for the Marine Protected Area in the Ross Sea region, an area covering over 2.3 million square kilometers. According to the National Geographic report, the Ross Sea is the most pristine and least polluted region in the planet with high faunal richness composed of minke whales, Adelie and Emperor penguins, Ross orcas, fin whales, leopard seals and Weddell seals, among others. The Ross Sea was considered an unexplored region until recently for its extreme geographic location: it is the sea closest to the South Pole. However, climate change and the modernization of fishing vessels have allowed for humans to reach the most remote point on earth.

On the other hand, Australia, France and the EU proposed the creation of 7 Marine Protected Areas in the region of East Antarctica covering a total of 1.6 million square kilometers. East Antarctica is home to 42% of Ross seals, blue, minke and humpback whales and more than 50,000 emperor penguins, 700,000 Adelie penguins and over one million petrel penguins. It is an area little explored and investigated which is preserved almost without human activity.

The Weddell Sea region, rich in species such as Weddell seals, krill, sea leopards, orcas and whales, is also threatened by the fishing industry and climate change. Germany is working on a proposal to protect the Weddell Sea and Argentina and Chile in September 2013 pledged to present a project of marine protected areas (MPAs) to CCAMLR.

Marine protected areas aim to preserve valuable marine resources in these Polar Regions and protect the wildlife that inhabits it (penguins, seals, albatrosses, whales, petrels, etc.). MPAs do not prohibit fishing in all areas, instead they subdivide the regions ecosystems: those richest in wildlife and where fishing is prohibited and regions where you can carry out regulated fisheries sustainably.

Agenda Antártica’s Marine Protected Areas program aims to raise awareness about protecting the Southern Ocean, disseminate information, lobby governments to support MPAs and conduct seminars and conferences where recent investigations of southern marine life are presented.

Facts from the Wild South

The oceans around Antarctica are some of the most precious in the world. They’re one of the last places on Earth still relatively untouched by human activity.

1. This beautiful, icy ocean environment is home to nearly 10,000 species, many of which can be found nowhere else on the planet.

2. Adelié and emperor penguins, Antarctic petrels and minke whales, Ross Sea killer whales, colossal squid and Weddell seals all thrive in this inhospitable climate.

3. While many other marine ecosystems in other parts of the world have been devastated by development, pollution, mining and over-fishing, many of Antarctica’s ocean habitats remain intact with all of their predator species still thriving.

4. About 70% of our earth’s surface is ocean, yet less than 1% of the high seas beyond national jurisdiction is fully protected from human development.

5. Evidence shows that much of the global ocean has been fished to dangerously low levels. About a third of commercial fisheries are overexploited and a further half fully exploited. For some large fish species such as tuna and swordfish, up to 90% of their stocks have disappeared. Some stocks are at a tipping point, and may not recover (source: Global Ocean Commission).

6. Antarctica’s wildlife is now under increasing pressure from commercial fishing and climate change.

7. Many of the Southern Ocean’s habitats are unique and distinct from others in the region, demonstrating incredible diversity of life in this icy climate.

8. The Ross Sea, an area that is frozen over throughout the Antarctic winter, produces large phytoplankton blooms as ocean temperatures warm, which grow so large that they are visible from space.

9. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle calls Antarctica’s Southern Ocean the heart of the world’s oceans because it is a driver of the rest of the world’s oceanic and atmospheric systems. Some 70% of the Earth’s fresh water is locked up in the Antarctic ice sheets.

10. Climate change is already having an impact on the Antarctic environment, particularly in the Antarctic Peninsula region, one of the fastest warming areas on earth. The Southern Ocean and Antarctica’s relatively untouched environment provide a critical laboratory for scientists researching global warming. Creation of large marine reserves in the Ross Sea and elsewhere would create important global climate reference areas.