World's largest marine reserve in Antarctica finally gets the green light

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'Hey, where did everyone go?' A lone penguin navigates the icy waters of the Ross Sea(Credit: John Weller)

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Not a week goes by where we don't hear about the impending extinction of another species, so here's something positive for a change: after six years of diplomatic impasse, the countries that determine the fate of Antarctica's waters have finally reached a historic agreement to declare the Ross Sea an official Marine Protected Area, making it the world's largest protected marine area and the first time that multiple countries have worked together to protect an area that falls outside the jurisdiction of any one country.

Covering 1.55 million square km (598,458 sq miles) – about twice the size of Texas – the Ross Sea is often called the Last Ocean or the Serengeti of the Antarctic, owing to its pristine ecosystem. For a long time, its remote location buffered it from human activities, such as overfishing and pollution, which have plagued other oceans, thus enabling an incredibly diverse and near-pristine marine ecosystem to flourish.

Thanks to its nutrient-rich waters, over 10,000 species, including orcas, minke whales, seals, and a sizeable number of the world's Adélie and emperor penguins, call the Ross Sea home. Here, scientific data goes as far back as 170 years, making it an invaluable resource for scientists studying the effects of climate change on ecosystems.

There are three species of killer whales that live in the Ross Sea, including one that feeds exclusively on fish (Credit: John Weller)

In recent years, however, commercial fishing trawlers have started encroaching upon the Ross Sea's idyllic existence owing to the abundance of toothfish (which is marketed as Chilean Sea Bass in restaurants) in its waters. The watershed agreement, which was ratified this Friday by the members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), seeks to protect the Ross Sea from the perils of commercial fishing.

When it comes into effect in December 2017, 72 percent of the reserve will be a "no-take" zone, which forbids all fishing. There will also be limits placed on krill fishing for the next five years to protect the Antarctic ecosystem. And while no changes have been made to the total tonnage of fish that can be taken from the Ross Sea, vessels will need to go farther out to sea, away from critical feeding and breeding grounds.

How commercial fisheries can co-exist peacefully with the Ross Sea's wildlife(Credit: Antarctic Ocean Alliance)

The deal, which was brokered by New Zealand and the US, became a reality after Russia, which had been the last holdout owing to concerns over the impact of the agreement on its fishing industries, finally came on board with the other 24 member countries and the EU after concessions were made.

While this agreement has been hailed as a hard-won victory for diplomacy and the environment, its 35-year protection limit has raised concerns in some quarters. "The limited 35-year restriction for protection of the Ross Sea contradicts the scientific advice that marine protection should be long-term," said Mike Walker, Project Director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance.

"It's critical to set aside these really epic spots for diversity, not just as marine parks but as places that can build resistance to the changing climate," added WWF Australia Ocean Science Manager Chris Johnson in an interview with CNN.

Climate change is a bigger threat to penguin populations than killer whales or any other predator(Credit: John Weller)

Nevertheless for all involved, this is a positive first step forward, especially considering the time and effort it's taken to get to this point.

"The creation of the Ross Sea MPA is an extraordinary step forward for marine protection," said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a press statement. "[It] will safeguard one of the last unspoiled ocean wilderness areas on the planet … [and] is designed to be a natural laboratory for valuable scientific research to increase our understanding of the impact of climate change and fishing on the ocean and its resources."

Star fish thrive under the ice(Credit: John Weller)

Emperor penguins are the only penguin species that breeds during the Antarctic winter(Credit: John Weller)

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