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Protecting Antarctica’s Ross Sea

The “Last Ocean”

Grant Ballard, PhD


In this time of great challenges for ecosystems, the need for PRBO’s leadership in connecting scientific knowledge with conservation opportunities is urgent, and it manifests in quite diverse settings.

Earlier this year I was part of a conservation mission to South Korea and China—two scientists and two policy experts visiting Seoul and Beijing. One of our meetings was with a Chinese official who welcomed us with tea served in Emperor Penguin mugs, which he later gave us as mementos. He then listened attentively for 30 minutes as we laid out the scientific and legal rationale behind our request that his government not break the consensus needed to establish a marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. After thanking us very much for our efforts on behalf of humanity, our host dove into a long and bewildering treatise on topics such as China’s rights, proportional to its population size, to deplete the world’s natural resources and to claim the most potential carbon credits because they produce most of the world’s iPhones.

This being our seventh such meeting in four days, we just smiled and said, “We’re not asking you to stop fishing—just to help protect a globally important area where China has never fished anyway and to show leadership on international commitments to protect 10% of the world’s ocean by 2020.” He said he would do his best to support our request.
Adélie Penguins at the ice edge, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Photo by Grant Ballard / PRBO.Click here to view this photo at larger size!.

The Ross Sea is the most pristine ocean on the planet and the only place on earth where sea ice is growing in extent (for now). It is also home to extraordinary numbers of animals, particularly top predators such as whales, large fish, penguins, and other seabirds. Many consider the Ross Sea a “natural laboratory,” because it serves as a reminder of what much of the world’s oceans must have been like prior to the present era of severe impacts, many of them human-caused. And recent studies show that the Ross Sea plays an outsized role in mitigating global warming: it is responsible for 11% of all the atmospheric carbon sequestration by the world’s oceans. This is due in part to ecosystem processes that we are still trying to understand—and that are likely no longer fully functional in other, more degraded marine ecosystems.

Yet this remote, icy sea is vulnerable. Data from PRBO’s and others’ research show detectable impacts on the ecosystem from even the relatively small amount of fishing that has been permitted in the Ross Sea since 1997. Establishing protection for this “last ocean” is one of PRBO’s highest priorities today.

Hence my 2012 visit to capitals of Asian nations that sit on the international governing body for Antarctica, to try and help explain to people with responsibilities related to foreign affairs, environment, and natural resources that the Ross Sea should be an MPA. Forty-two years after PRBO’s first excursion to Antarctica, decades of data collection and collaboration with scores of colleagues from scores of institutions, and hundreds of scientific publications—all boiled down into 30 minutes of conversation. Somewhat to my surprise, I was mostly met with open curiosity, great questions, and ultimately some reasons for cautious optimism.

The real message during that mission? The time to deliver relevant, scientific information to the key decision makers is now. Because of our long-term scientific perspective and commitment to improving conservation outcomes, PRBO is particularly well equipped to do this crucial work.

We live in an exciting and fraught time. More information and wisdom than ever before can now be brought to bear on environmental change more rapid and widespread than humans have previously experienced. As conservation scientists, we at PRBO are committed to engaging— delivering what information we have to the people and situations where it will most make a difference, and learning through this engagement what efforts are most needed next.