Protecting Antarctica – one of Earth’s last great wildernesses

Antarctica is one of the last remaining pristine wildernesses on Earth. A place of extremes, Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest and iciest of all the continents. On the southernmost tip of our planet, as an area nearly double the size of Australia, it is covered by up to nearly three miles thick layers of ice. Estimates vary, but NASA states that Antarctica’s ice sheet consists of 90% of the world’s ice. Although it may seem to be lifeless and inhospitable from afar, the continent’s biodiversity is proven to be surprisingly diverse and exotic, with many different species living in complex ecosystems and having adapted to the harsh Antarctic conditions.

At the same time, as the world’s only continent without a native human population, Antarctica does not have its own government. The Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty may act as a replacement. With the objective of avoiding conflicts on the continent, the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by twelve signatories who agreed to put aside their territorial claims for the duration of the agreement. Often described as ground-breaking and used as a loose blueprint for the Outer Space Treaty, the Antarctic Treaty may be seen as a template for how to manage areas that lie beyond traditional national boundaries.

Together with the Antarctic Treaty, a number of other agreements have been developed to govern the relations between the involved countries, known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). For the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, for example, it was agreed to ban mineral resource exploration on the continent other than for scientific research. Another important component of the ATS is the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) which aims at protecting Antarctic marine life. Growing concerns about krill fishing in the Southern Ocean resulted in the establishment of the CCAMLR. Krill fishing poses serious threats to marine species depending on krill for food and thus the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. With the Southern Ocean as the most important ocean carbon sink on our planet, krill is also important in the fight against climate change as they consume carbon-rich food and thus remove greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It is questionable, however, whether the Antarctic Treaty System will be able to continue to keep order on the continent. The growing number of signatories renders the treaty increasingly cumbersome – 53 nations are currently parties to the treaty. The signatories’ increasing strategic and economic interests in the continent may further create tensions and put pressure on this model of governance. Antarctica is not only home to the largest store of freshwater on Earth and vast potential reserves of oil and gas, it is also surrounded by important fishing grounds which have become especially important in times of overfishing in increasingly larger areas of the oceans.

The treaty system may hence face challenges in protecting the natural resources in Antarctica and its surrounding waters. Following years of negotiations, however, 24 countries and the European Union agreed in 2016 to turn the Antarctic Ross Sea into the largest marine protected area (MPA) worldwide. The European Union also submitted a proposal to the CCAMLR in 2016 which aims at prohibiting fishing in the Antarctic Weddell Sea. The goal is to create an even larger MPA in order to conserve the marine living resources in this unspoiled part of the Southern Ocean that has been spared by the fishing industry up until now and that is home to unique and diverse biodiversity.

This proposal will be discussed in October this year. While the CCAMLR members have to approve unanimously, several countries still hold strong interests in the industrial krill fishing industry. But the good news is that most krill companies announced in July that they would stop fishing in large areas of the Southern Ocean. Their decision in favour of protecting the Antarctic marine ecosystem was preceded by extensive campaigns from environmental groups, supported by millions of people. This is undoubtedly a promising start for the plan to create an Antarctic marine park. Other industries now need to follow suit and it needs to be ensured that the MPAs are developed. Public pressure has been crucial for the conservation of parts of Antarctica so far - now it is time to do everything in our power to protect one of our planet’s last great wildernesses.

By Earth Restoration Service Blog Writer Theresa Stoll
Images from Wikimedia