With West Antarctica now among the fastest warming places on the planet, scientists and delegations have gathered in Hobart, Australia for an annual meeting to discuss conservation measures for the Southern Ocean, with a large focus on marine protection areas (MPAs) and krill.
At the 33rd meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the Commission will review previous proposals, such as the creation of MPAs in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea.
According to the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA), the Ross Sea is one of the most pristine oceans left on earth, and East Antarctica is home to many of the ecosystem’s crucial marine species.
One of these species the members of the AOA are especially concerned about is krill.
“Krill are key in the food web in the Southern Ocean and they are also caught by human fishing boats to be used as stock feeds, agriculture food, and also nutrition supplements,” Bob Zuur, manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Antarctic program, told Planet Experts.
Zuur said the main concern with krill is the lack of information on how many krill are in the ecosystem relative to how many krill are being caught.
“Krill is so important…and if we take food from them it stresses the established populations and could cause decline. There is a particular concern for animals and how far they can travel for food – and the ones we’re most concerned about are penguins,” Zuur said.
Zuur explained that krill is hugely dependent on sea ice for its life cycle, and in Antarctic krill fishing areas there is a significant increase in temperature due to climate change and a reduction in sea ice.
The director of the Global Penguin Conservation Campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts, Andrea Kavanagh, told Planet Experts that her organization is requesting 100 percent observer coverage onboard krill vessels.
“In recent years there has actually been a decrease in both the adelie penguin and the chinstrap penguin throughout the Antarctic peninsula, and krill is the favorite food of both those species,” Kavanagh said.
Another climate change issue WWF is concerned about is the increasing carbon dioxide in the Antarctic waters.
“Polar areas tend to absorb more CO2 and tend to become more acidic, and that creates all sorts of problems for creatures that have a lot of calcium in their backbones,” said Bob Zuur.
“There’s a range of crustacean animals like crabs, krill, and also many tiny organisms that are right at the heart of the food chain that have got skeletons that are made out of calcium. When water becomes more acidic, that calcium dissolves.”
For the past three years the AOA has tried to establish MPAs, but such decisions can only be made when all CCAMLR parties agree.
“It’s been disappointing that the MPAs have not taken off sooner than this and we certainly thought they would have. But unfortunately they have not, and hopefully this will be the year,” Kavanagh said.
Zuur noted that although Russia questioned CCAMLR’s legal ability to create MPAs last year, its resistance seems to have dissipated. China, Korea and Japan – which have fishing interests in the Southern Ocean – are also in opposition, whereas Norway and some South American countries are wavering.
“There are other concerns of geopolitics because the area is not owed by anybody and is under the Antarctic treaty. There is no ownership of the Southern Ocean, but it is subject to the management of CCAMLR,” said Zuur.
“Some members have suggested that by creating MPAs you’ll be effectively asserting sovereignty in those areas. That is completely incorrect because the MPAs are the responsibility of CCAMLR, which is a whole group of countries.”
CCAMLRs meetings will continue until October 31. The Commission will later release a report on their progress.
Images Courtesy of Antarctic Ocean Alliance © 2014