Over recent years, Antarctica has become one of the fastest warming places on the Earth. Temperatures in the southern Antarctic ocean are warming more rapidly then the entire global ocean as a whole. This kind of warming is causing changes to both the physical and living environments of the Antarctic. A vast number of animal colonies are being affected as the ice conditions alter. Their abundance in the ocean is being affected by the reduced sea ice cover, making them increasingly threatened by extinction as time goes on.
It was announced this week that 598,000 square miles of the Ross Sea will be internationally protected, making it the World’s largest marine reserve. The Ross Sea, sometimes referred to as the ‘last ocean’ is located to the south of New Zealand and deep within the South Antarctic ocean. The protected area covers an area that is 6 times bigger than the UK. The decision was made by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources which is made up of 24 countries including the US and EU. Protection of the Ross Sea was also triggered by a number of personal pursuits and a letter that was signed by 500 scientists.
The protection is a huge milestone for marine conservation in Antarctica. 72 % of the Ross ocean, which is home to 16,000 species, will become a ‘no-take’ zone in which all fishing is forbidden. The remaining areas will allow some harvesting of fish but only for fundamental scientific research. Not only will fish be protected in the marine reserve, it will also be hugely beneficial for other species such as the Emperor and Adelie penguins, orcas, leopard and crabeater seals and minke whales.
Enric Sala, a marine biologist who leads the Pristine Seas project, stated that the newly protected area shows that ‘the world can successfully cooperate on global environmental issues’. His comment comes after environmental groups and several countries pushed for the protection for decades. However, after 5 difficult years of negotiations with China and Russia the deal was finally made. Sala also made the very poignant and harrowing statement that ‘The Ross Sea is probably the largest ocean wilderness left on our planet.” He says, “It’s one of these rare places where humans are only visitors and large animals rule.”
The protection of the Ross Ocean is extremely hopeful and provides a rare opportunity to increase the Southern Ocean’ resilience to climate change. Limiting human impact in the Ross Ocean will open up extraordinary possibilities to save the biodiversity of the area, which produces about three-quarters of the nutrients that sustain life in the rest of the world’s oceans. It also has great scientific implications and will enable scientists to gain a better understanding of how climate change is affecting the environment and ecology of Antarctica.
This unprecedented decision is also one step closer to achieving the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s recommendation that 30% of the world’s oceans should be protected. WWF-Australia’s ocean science manager Chris Johnson stated that ‘this is important not just for the incredible diversity of life that it will protect, but also for the contribution it makes to building the resilience of the world’s ocean in the face of climate change.”
Despite the fact that the current deal only measures for 35 years, that time will be extremely valuable. The deal is a very big step in the start of protecting oceans around the world. It also brings fundamental hope for those endangered species that are struggling against their gruelling environment. Most importantly, it is also proof that the world is beginning to understand the urgency of the threats that are facing our planet and that we are beginning to work together to fight them.