The United States and New Zealand have agreed on a joint proposal to establish the world’s largest marine reserve in the Ross Sea. If adopted by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) this week, the proposal, will cover more than 600,000 square miles. While quite a bit short of the 1.4 million square miles that Greenpeace and the Antarctic Ocean Alliance have been working to protect, this would clearly be a major step forward.
It has taken a lot to get this far, but success is far from certain. There are 25 members of CCAMLR, all of which must agree to support the new reserve. Decisions are made by consensus, so even one member country has the ability to block progress. Some members, such as Japan, China, and Russia, have often opposed marine reserves in the past, but hopefully they will honor their earlier commitment to create a network of protected areas by 2012.
There is much at stake. Scientists have identified the Ross Sea as the most pristine coastal sea on the planet, but fishing is starting to take its toll. Vessels fishing for toothfish, often sold under the name of Chilean sea bass, have already removed tens of thousands of tons of fish from the Ross Sea. As you might guess, this has not done much for the health of the toothfish population, but there are indications it may be affecting other species as well – particularly the Ross Sea killer whale, which feeds on toothfish.
We will have to see how things develop. Not all deals are good deals, and it is still possible that one or more CCAMLR members may succeed in watering down the proposal so much that we can no longer support it. For now, though, we have more reason to hope than many expected. Cross your fingers, pray, meditate, or whatever you do when you are trying to send positive thoughts – but above all, act. More than a million people have signed on to calls to protect the Ross Sea this year, as have major supermarket chains like Safeway, Harris Teeter, Wegmans. CCAMLR members know the world is watching – let’s keep the pressure on!