A day after World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its Living Planet report that said global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012 (the most recent year with available data), a heartening piece of news came from Hobart, Australia, on Friday: A landmark international agreement has been signed to create the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, after five years of compromises and failed negotiations.
The decision was taken at the Meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) after members, including India, agreed to a joint US/New Zealand proposal to establish a 1.55 million km2 area of the Ross Sea with special protection from human activities.
This new MPA — to come into force in December 2017 — will limit, or prohibit, certain activities in order to meet specific conservation, habitat protection, ecosystem monitoring and fisheries management objectives. Seventy-two per cent of the MPA will be a ‘no-take’ zone, which forbids all fishing, while other sections will permit some harvesting of fish and krill for scientific research.
Earlier, repeated attempts by the CCAMLR to enact pass this deal had earlier vetoed and blocked by Russia, China, and the Ukraine, whose commercial fishing interests are threatened by the strict marine protections put forth in the piece of conservation legislation.
“For the first time, countries have put aside their differences to protect a large area of the Southern Ocean and international waters,” said Ema Fatima, coordinator, ocean and marines programmes, WWF.
Here’s why it is critical to save the Ross Sea:
First, Scientists have estimated that Antarctic Ocean — Ross Sea is a deep bay in the ocean —- produces about three-quarters of the nutrients that sustain life in the rest of the world’s oceans.
Second, unique climatology, oceanography, and geography have made the Ross Sea an unusually diverse and rich ecosystem. It is home to Antarctic mince whales and Ross Sea killer whales
Fourth, the Ross Sea is important to scientists. It has the longest history of scientific research in the Southern Ocean. This means that scientists have data beginning 170 years ago, and continuous records going back over 50 years. Having reliable data for long periods of time helps scientists to draw more accurate conclusions and better understand environmental and ecological changes, particularly in the field of climate research.
Fifth, the Ross Sea provides a habitat for a diverse array of benthic and mid-water species, but most importantly, unlike all other portions of the world ocean, its top predators are still abundant. Any alteration of the food web or degradation of habitat will have the same damaging effects that have been documented elsewhere on Earth, such as toxic algal blooms, oxygen-deprived dead zones and jellyfish invasions.
Sixth, The Ross Sea is also considered the most productive area in the entire Southern Ocean. Many species therefore depend upon it for food. Although relatively remote and inaccessible by ship for most of the year, the Ross Sea is drawing more interest from commercial interests, particularly commercial fishers.
“It is good news that the countries have joined hands to save Ross Sea. As recent reports have shown, world’s oceans are in a bad shape due to pollution and over fishing… in such a scenario this development is very important,” Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, told HT.
He added that India has lessons to learn from the Ross Sea deal: “India has 640 protected areas on land but only five when it comes to marine areas… we must save these areas because they are crucial to not only crucial to environment but also provide livelihood for the coastal population.”
There are only five marine national parks in India. The Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park was declared a marine biosphere reserve in 2002, the first of its kind in south and Southeast Asia, but is still under severe threat thanks to over-harvesting of fishery resources, destruction of habitats and the breeding grounds of fish, industrial pollution (nearly 30 industries are located along the coast of GoM); trade in highly endangered marine organisms, dynamite fishing and use of prohibited fishing gears by fisherfolk.