Growing commercial interest in Southern Ocean’s resources thwarts protection efforts around Antarctica  

Russia no longer engages in krill fisheries but wants to keep its options open. It might have larger plans

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Wednesday 12 April 2023
Growing commercial interest in Southern Ocean’s resources thwarts protection efforts around Antarctica  
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Come June, delegates from 27 countries, including India, will gather in Chile’s Santiago to discuss the future of the dry, frozen continent, some 7,000 kilometres away.

Researchers say Antarctica and the Southern Ocean that surrounds the continent are heating up at an alarming rate. Since 1950, the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by almost 3°C — highest in the Southern Hemisphere, as per the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, non-profit consortium of 100 colleges and universities in US. The dwindling pack ice around Antarctica now poses a serious challenge for its delicate ecosystem where land and ocean are tightly linked.

So in 2009, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international treaty to manage fisheries, and preserve species diversity and stability of the region’s marine ecosystem, pledged to designate a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2012. It divided the region’s high seas into nine planning domains.

Countries that wish to set up MPAs in these high seas, submit a proposal to CCAMLR, which then uses evidence-based science to identify areas that require additional protection and establishes it following consensus among its 27 member nations. So far, CCAMLR has established only two MPAs. Proposals for setting up three more are in a limbo because of a lack of consensus.

CCAMLR, which typically meets in October every year where its members hold discussions on MPAs, management and conservation measures, has called a “special meeting” in June to resolve the differences.

The differences among CCAMLR’s member nations stems from the fact that the region is home to abundant natural resources, from minerals to marine life. Southern Ocean teems with some 9,000 species that are among the most diverse on the planet. It has the highest concentration of Antarctic krills, a tiny shrimp-like crustacean that forms the base of Antarctic food chain. From whales to seals and penguins, every animal species in Antarctica depends direc-
tly or indirectly on krill for survival.

But this heavy reliance on a single species makes the Antarctic ecosystem fragile. Since krills feed on ice algae, researchers fear that their stock may get significantly affected as the region loses pack ice due to global warming.

To worsen the matter, in the last five decades, commercial fishing of Antarctic krill has increased. Krills are highly prized as fish feed. Their omega-3 fatty acid is in demand for high-value pharma- and neutraceutical products. Estimates show adult krill population density, once thought abundant in Southern Ocean, has dropped by 80-90 per cent since the 1970s. 

Following the establishment of the two MPAs, CCAMLR to some extent has managed to check overexploitation of krills and also recover stocks of several other species like toothfish and mackerel icefish.

The first MPA — the South Orkney Islands reserve, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula — was proposed by the UK and was designated in 2009. Spanning 94,000 sq km, it falls in domain 3. Other than scientific research, as agreed by CCAMLR, all types of fishing and discharges and dumping from fishing vessels are prohibited in this MPA.

In 2016, the second MPA, the world’s largest, was designated in the Ross Sea, which is in domain 8 and spans 1.55 million sq km. It was proposed by the US and New Zealand. In 2010, CCAMLR established a catch limit for certain areas in domains 1 and 2, located around Antarctic Peninsula, where krill fishing is concentrated. As per the rule, krill fishing in these areas must stop if the total catch reaches 620,000 tonnes, or 1 per cent of the total estimated stock, per season (months when krill fishing is allowed).

So far, countries have not exceeded this limit, but data with CCAMLR shows that catch in these areas is steadily increasing—161,772 tonnes of krills were harvested in 2021, compared to 32,694 and 15,643 tonnes in 2000 and 2005. Countries like Norway, China, Chile, South Korea and Ukraine are heavily involved in krill fishing. India has also expressed interest in joining the league.  

Researchers say the three proposed MPAs, if established, would protect another 3.64 million sq km of the Southern Ocean. These include 0.97 million sq km in East Antarctica that falls in domain 7 (proposed by Australia and EU in 2012); 0.47 million sq km in Antarctic peninsula that falls in domain 1 (proposed by Argentina and Chile in 2017); and 2.2 million sq km in Weddell Sea that falls in domains 3 and 4 (proposed by Germany on behalf of the EU in 2018).  

But not all countries are convinced about setting up MPAs in Southern Ocean. At the annual meetings of CCAMLR, China and Russia have blocked the proposals questioning the need for protection to organisms that are not threatened. 

Analysts say CCAMLR adopts a precautionary approach. “You do not need a threat. You protect it while it is still healthy so it stays healthy,” explains Nicole Bransome, who works on Protecting Antarctica’s Southern Ocean project at Pew Charitable Trusts. They say countries are probably opposing MPAs because of the fear their access to resources in the region would be restricted in future.

Karen N Scott, professor, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, writes in a 2021 paper published in Korean Journal of International and CoMPArative Law that member nations did not fuss over the acceptance of the first MPA, because the final proposal excluded the area where fishing activity is carried out. During  acceptance of the second MPA, China, Russia and Ukraine were not on board initially, citing a lack of transparency, the failure to define an MPA and confusion over benefits. China and Russia came on board after commercial krill fishing of up to 15,000 tonnes was allowed in a krill research zone. Though commercial krill fishing does not occur in Ross Sea, toothfish fishing has occurred for 20 years.

Claire Christian, director of the Secretariat of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (asoc), a global coalition of environmental non-profits, further explains why certain countries might be opposing CCAMLR MPAs. Russia no longer engages in krill fisheries but wants to keep its options open and might have other larger plans.

In 2020, the country conducted geophysical surveys in sections of the Riiser-Larsen Sea off the coast of Eastern Antarctica. Rosgeo, a Russian geological holding coMPAny, listed investigating the “oil and gas potential of the Antarctic shelf” as the objective on its website. Though CCAMLR does not manage access to mineral resources, any activity relating to oil and minerals, other than scientific research, is prohibited in the fragile environment of Antarctica. 

At CCAMLR meetings, those opposing MPAs have also voiced concerns that countries proposing MPAs might use it as a front to secure sovereign control over Antarctic waters. Their fear probably stems from the fact that in last two decades, countries (UK, France, Norway, South Africa and Australia) that have historically claimed islands in the Southern Ocean—before the Antarctic Treaty System came into being to govern activities in this continent with no native human population—have not only set up MPAs around their territories but also expanding the areas.

In 1971, Norway became the first country to set up a 2,214 sq km MPA around Bouver island and declared it a nature reserve. In 2002, Australia declared an MPA around Heard and McDonald islands, which it expanded to 71,000 sq km in 2014. France followed suit in 2006 and designated MPAs around Crozet and Kerguelen islands. In 2017, it too expanded the MPAs to 0.58 million sq km. In 2012, UK declared a large MPA around South Georgia and South Sandwich islands, which it further expanded in 2019 to 1.24 million sq km. In 2013, South Africa designated a 0.16 million sq km MPA around Prince Edward islands. 

Daniel Pauly, principal investigator of the Sea Around Us initiative at the University of British Columbia, Canada, says such MPAs established in the middle of nowhere could be a ploy of these countries to meet their targets under the Global Biodiversity Framework that calls for 30 per cent of the earth’s land and sea to be conserved by 2030. Since monitoring MPAs costs money, countries could just declare it but  not care about it, which defeats the purpose of MPAs, Pauly adds.

Bransome hopes that MPAs under CCAMLR will gain traction during the G20 meeting, which will be held between September 9-10, 2023, under the presidency of India. Jitendra Singh, Union minister of state (independent charge) for science and technology and earth sciences, tells Down To Earth that India has agreed to support MPAs in the Weddell Sea and East Antarctica. Once approved, these MPAs will help the world benefit from the Antarctic resources while conserving them.  

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