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Antarctic Commission Falls Short of Expectations on Protected Areas

Southern Ocean krill trawling (CCAMLR file image)
Southern Ocean krill trawling (CCAMLR file image)

Published Oct 29, 2023 12:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Friday, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) wrapped up its 42nd annual meeting in Hobart, Australia, amid criticism of its failure to reach a resolution for additional protected areas in the Antarctic Ocean. There was an expectation that the meeting, which ran for two weeks, would resolve the current stalemate on conservation of the Antarctic region.

For almost a decade, the CCAMLR has reaffirmed its commitment to put most of the Southern Ocean under protection. However, during this period the agency has only managed to implement two high seas MPAs - the South Orkney Islands’ southern shelf and the Ross Sea region. Covering over two million square kilometers, the Ross Sea is now considered the world’s largest MPA (Marine Protected Area).

Three new MPAs have been proposed in the Antarctic Peninsula, Weddel Sea and East Antarctica, but CCAMLR members postponed the decision to the upcoming meeting in 2024.

“Another year, another failed Antarctic Ocean Commission meeting. The Commission can always agree to new fishing licenses, but can’t agree on a concrete pathway towards protection. The lack of progress seen during this session does not meet the challenges facing the Antarctic region,” said Jehki Härkönen, Ocean Policy Advisor, Greenpeace International.

The majority of CCAMLR members have shown support for new Antarctic reserves, but the agency follows a consensus voting approach where all members must agree. This has meant that the minority could veto decisions of the majority.

In June, CCAMLR held a special meeting in an attempt to move forward on the MPAs issue. However, the meeting failed to reach a consensus, as China and Russia were opposed to vast swathes of the Antarctic Ocean being put under protection.

Meanwhile, the CCAMLR meeting made some progress in krill fisheries protection. The agency renewed its Conservation Measure (CM) 51-07, which distributes annual krill catch into four different areas around the Antarctic Peninsula, where most of the krill fishing happens. The CM has set the krill catch limit at 620,000 metric tons for each fishing season. The Scientific Committee also agreed to implement an updated ecosystem-based krill management plan, to be deliberated in an upcoming symposium in July 2024.

Krill is a cornerstone species of the Antarctic Ocean, forming a critical piece of the food web of the region’s important predators, such as the penguins and seals. Unfortunately, commercial fishing has seen the population of the Antarctic Krill decline, with the catch in one area of the Antarctic Peninsula doubling from an average of 55,000 metric tons per year in the 1980s to 115,000 metric tons per year in the 2010-2015 period.