A remote and largely pristine stretch of ocean off Antarctica received international protection on Friday, becoming the world’s largest marine reserve as a broad coalition of countries came together to protect 598,000 square miles of water.
The new marine protected area in the Ross Sea was created by a unanimous decision of the international body that oversees the waters around Antarctica—the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources—and was announced at the commission’s annual meeting in Tasmania. The commission comprises 24 countries, including the United States, and the European Union.
South of New Zealand and deep in the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean, the 1.9 million square-mile Ross Sea is sometimes called the “Last Ocean” because it is largely untouched by humans. Its nutrient-rich waters are the most productive in the Antarctic, leading to huge plankton and krill blooms that support vast numbers of fish, seals, penguins, and whales.
Some 16,000 species are thought to call the Ross Sea home, many of them uniquely adapted to the cold environment. A 2011 study in the journal Biological Conservation called the Ross Sea “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth,” citing intact communities of emperor and Adelie penguins, crabeater seals, orcas, and minke whales.
The sea’s remoteness has meant it has largely escaped the heavy fishing and shipping pressure that has impacted so much of the world’s ocean, although rising prices for seafood and the low cost of fuel have made some fishermen eye the waters as potential new grounds in recent years. Some fishing already occurred there for Antarctic toothfish, a predatory fish that is sold as the highly prized Chilean sea bass.
But fishing will no longer be allowed in 432,000 square miles of the new reserve (some toothfish fishing is expected to proceed in a specially designated zone in the remainder of the protected area). The new protection will go into force on December 1, 2017.
The newly protected area “shows that the world can successfully cooperate on global environmental issues,” says Enric Sala, a marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who leads the Pristine Seas project.
“The Ross Sea is probably the largest ocean wilderness left on our planet,” he says. “It is the Serengeti of Antarctica, a wild place full of wildlife such as emperor penguins, leopard seals, minke whales, and killer whales. It’s one of these rare places where humans are only visitors and large animals rule.”….