To protect the Southern Ocean, leaders must act now (commentary) –

The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is the icy heartbeat of our blue planet. Through its powerful currents, Antarctica’s ocean regulates our oxygen production and climate, and provides key nutrients that feed the whole world. Its vast icy expanses keep our planet cool.
This distant wilderness is home to some of the world’s most breathtaking wildlife, including emperor and Adélie penguins, humpback and killer whales, crabeater and leopard seals, albatross, krill and many other species.
It connects us all, and we all rely on it for a healthy world.
But Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are on the front lines of the climate crisis, with temperatures rising at an unprecedented rate. Global warming threatens the amazing nature of this region, and threatens us in turn.
We must work together to protect the Southern Ocean, so human activities do not weaken its overall health and ability to function.
While it’s widely acknowledged that countries need to cut carbon emissions to mitigate climate disasters, it’s equally vital for our nations to put in place a plan that restores ocean health. There is no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. In our response to the climate breakdown, nature is our greatest ally.
Protecting the Southern Ocean is an essential part of any global plan for a healthy planet.
One often overlooked and under-appreciated Southern Ocean species is Antarctic krill. Although small, krill play a huge role in the health of Antarctica. These shrimp-like creatures are vital in the fight against climate change, absorbing vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it into the ocean’s depths.
Thriving krill populations are vital for wildlife. Almost every species in Antarctica either directly relies on krill for survival, or feeds on another species that eats krill. They provide 96% of calories for certain seabirds and mammals in the Antarctic Peninsula.
The commercial krill fishery that produces fishmeal and luxury products, such as food supplements, has become extremely concentrated in recent years, with most of the catch taken from small, nearshore areas where wildlife, such as penguins, seals and whales feed.
Recent research showing whale populations slowly recovering from the brink of extinction following decades of overhunting, including an estimated 8,000 fin whales feeding in the Antarctic Peninsula this year, points to the need for fisheries managers to take into account the growing numbers of whales that rely on the rich waters of Antarctica to feed on krill.
Scientists agree on one method to help ensure a healthy ocean – creating connected networks of large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs) both regionally and globally. MPA networks can help restore ocean health and build resilience to climate change, giving species places to safely feed, breed and migrate. Additionally, activities outside of these protected zones, such as fishing, must be well-managed and not harm or deplete wildlife and habitats.
We need Southern Ocean MPAs and well-designed fishery measures to effectively conserve fish populations, habitats and wildlife. Without one, the other is meaningless and vice versa.
Luckily, we have the tools to implement a plan of action for the Southern Ocean. Now, we need the political courage and will to do it.
Antarctica and its Southern Ocean is a region of complex geo-political interests. It is also a shining example of international cooperation; at the height of the Cold War in 1960, the signing of the Antarctic Treaty set aside the continent for peace and science.
In recent years, however, protection of Antarctica’s international waters has been delayed and diluted by national interests.
Our current climate emergency dictates that countries must work together to prioritize marine protection; nature cannot wait for countries to settle their political differences.
Only two MPAs have been created since the governing body responsible for protecting Southern Ocean wildlife — the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — set a deadline to create a full network of MPAs 10 years ago.
More must be done, and global leaders have the opportunity to take action at the annual CCAMLR meeting, happening this week in Australia.
High-level political efforts must be leveraged to secure the designation of three proposed large MPAs in the East Antarctic, Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula. This would protect an area of nearly four million square kilometers.
Fishers must stop catching krill in areas which are vital to Antarctic marine life. Climate change impacts must be integral in assessing potential krill fishing activities, especially given the direct link of krill with sea ice. There also needs to be stricter measures to regulate transshipment, whereby a vessel passes its catch to another ship at sea, far away from the scrutiny of port controls. We need tighter measures to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated activities.
We can no longer side-step the decisions needed to preserve Antarctica’s ocean. If we do not protect large areas of the Southern Ocean and introduce fisheries measures that prevent the degradation of precious marine life and ecosystems, the consequences will be felt around the world.
We must act now.
Dona Bertarelli is a philanthropist, ocean advocate, and investor, find her latest thoughts at Twitter via @donabertarelli.
Banner image: Adelie penguins hunting the Southern Ocean. Image courtesy of John Weller.
Fish-feed industry turns to krill, with unknown effects on the Antarctic ecosystem

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