World’s Largest Marine Protected Area Established in the Ross Sea

The recently expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument has already fallen to second place as the world’s largest marine protected area is established in the Ross Sea.

A few months ago, President Obama declared Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA). A new MPA in Antarctica’s Ross Sea has already pushed it into second place.

On October 27th, the 24 member countries in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) concluded their annual meeting in Hobart, Tasmania. They voted on a proposal submitted by the United States and New Zealand, which advocated the creation of an almost 600,000-square-mile (1.55 million square km) reserve in the Ross Sea. The vote, which included the European Union and countries like Russia, China and Australia, was unanimously in favor of the MPA. It will take effect from December 1st, 2017.

The United States and New Zealand have a vested interest in the Ross Sea. Their Antarctic research stations are both near McMurdo Sound, one of the region’s many inlets. These research stations are some of the only signs of human activity in the area.

What are we protecting?

Here, the marine environment remains largely untouched, and nutrient-rich waters support huge blooms of plankton and krill. These in turn sustain approximately 16,000 different species of mammal, fish, bird and plant. Of these, many are endemic or uniquely adapted to life here. The new protected area includes the heart of the region’s biodiversity, the Ross Sea Shelf. Throughout the year, the Shelf provides feeding and breeding grounds for many rare and endangered species. These include the Adélie penguin, the emperor penguin and the South Pacific Weddell seal. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “the Ross Sea Region MPA will safeguard one of the last unspoiled ocean-wilderness areas on the planet.”

It is the Ross Sea’s wildness, and its distance from human civilization, that has so far largely saved it from the ravages of overfishing and pollution. Although the exact terms of the MPA are not yet determined, 72 percent of its total area will be designated as a no-take zone. This effectively bans all fishing activities. Other areas of the MPA will allow specific quotas of fish and krill for scientific research.

In the works for years

This victory for marine conservation is not sudden. CCAMLR’s Scientific Committee first endorsed the proposal for a Ross Sea MPA in 2011. It failed to earn unanimous support for five consecutive years thereafter. The proposal has been reworked and revisited every year since then. Finally, only one CCAMLR nation stood between the dream of the MPA and reality — Russia. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have had an environmental change of heart, recently announcing that 2017 would be the country’s “Year of Ecology.”

In August (on the same day that Obama announced the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument), Russia announced its decision to expand the Russian Arctic National Park. Two months later, Russian delegates finally voted in favor of the Ross Sea MPA. This gave the reserve the unanimous vote it needed. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala says that the recent result serves as proof “that the world can successfully cooperate on global environmental issues.”

The MPA is not eternal, however. The General Protection Zone is valid for 35 years, while the Special Research Zone is valid for 30 years. Then, the CCAMLR must decide whether or not to renew the MPA. However, this is the first time that a group of nations has come together to protect such a huge tract of international water. The Ross Sea MPA sets a valuable precedent. In the words of John Kerry, it shows “that the world is finally beginning to understand the urgency of the threats facing our planet.”