Why the US, China and Russia are squabbling over an ugly, ghost-like fish that no-one wants to eat – Stuff

A strange pale fish, lurking in the icy depths of the Southern Ocean, has become the unlikely focus of the latest tussle between the United States, Russia and China.
Beneath the Antarctic ice shelves, living in almost perpetual darkness – the neopagetopsis ionah or Jonah’s icefish – are one of Earth’s most hardy and mysterious creatures.
The ghoulish creatures, with a crocodile-shaped head, have snow-white blood containing antifreeze proteins, no scales and thin bones that allow them to survive in freezing temperatures.
Last year, the discovery of 60 million icefish nests – the world’s largest known fish breeding area – in the Weddell Sea was a major scientific breakthrough. It was hoped they would play an important role in the conservation of Antarctica and its surrounding oceans.
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Unlike the highly-prized toothfish, which has previously sparked diplomatic rows and illegal poaching raids in Antarctic waters, there is no demand for icefish from top chefs.
So why is this bottom-dwelling, peculiar fish – and along with it the krill, a tiny shrimp-like crustacean – at the centre of political tensions over territorial claims for a region that contains the world’s largest store of freshwater, rich fisheries, and perhaps huge reserves of minerals, oil and gas?
For scientists and marine conservationists, both icefish and krill are vital to the survival of other species, and an integral part of a complex food chain in the wild and stormy ocean, which in turn influences global food, currents and climate.
The find – by a German research team deploying a towed camera system – was new evidence for the push to create the world’s largest marine protected area in the Weddell Sea. The icy refuge is also home to emperor penguins.
“It is important to protect this nest area because of its ecosystem functions,” said Katharina Teschke of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institut, and the project’s lead researcher.
“Due to the vast extent of the nest area this icefish area seems to provide an abundant food source for top predators, such as the Weddell seal, which has been actively foraging near the colony since at least the mid-2000s.”
For six years, diplomats, scientists and campaigners have battled to designate an MPA (marine protected area) in the Weddell Sea. Restrictions already exist in the pristine environment, but this would impose further rules to prevent overfishing and accidental capture of seabirds and mammals.
It was to be the second sanctuary – the first is in the Ross Sea – in a planned network spanning millions of kilometres of the rich, fertile Southern Ocean. Two other proposals – around the Western Antarctica Peninsula and East Antarctica were also before The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). In total, they would ring-fence almost four million sq km.
But once again, the annual meeting of the group held in Hobart earlier this month, ended in deadlock
Of 27 member states, two are opposed: Russia and China. CCAMLR decisions must be unanimous.
Delegates did agree to the unusual step of holding a special meeting, at an unspecified date next year in Chile. It would be only the third time in its 40-year history that talks are held outside CCAMLR’s usual calendar.
“There was a lot of frustration amongst the proponents,” one delegate told Stuff, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think people came to the meeting with pretty low expectations because the Russian invasion of Ukraine just added to the complications.”
Eight new areas were added to a list of vulnerable marine ecosystems (groups of species or habitats that may be damaged by fishing activities) which means they will be protected from gear that touches the seabed – but that doesn’t include the icefish nests.
The committee also agreed a new resolution on climate change which “stresses the importance of taking urgent action.”
Conservationists – and politicians – vented their frustration. US assistant secretary of state Monica Medina blasted both China and Russia for standing in the way of conservation measures. Both countries had also resisted the creation of the Ross Sea MPA, originally proposed by New Zealand and the US in 2012 and finally agreed to four years later. The only other MPA – in the South Orkney Islands southern shelf – was established in 2009.
“Russia’s repeated rejection of the best available scientific information amounts to an abuse of its commitment to participate in consensus-based decision-making,” she said in a statement.
Germany’s Federal Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir told his national Press Agency that: “The longstanding Russian blockade attitude proves once again [that] Russia is not interested in constructive cooperation with the international community.”
By contrast, New Zealand’s politicians have said little. In a tweet, illustrated with penguin and fish emojis, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta wrote: “vital protections for Antarctic marine ecosystems after 40 years of international cooperation in #CCAMLR. [NZ flag emoji] backs CCAMLR’s new Climate Change Resolution to conserve this fragile environment for future generations.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed to the statement from the US state department, and said it was “joined by many CCAMLR Members” including New Zealand. (The statement has no other signatories).
“New Zealand and other countries expressed deep concern that Russia has repeatedly ignored the scientific evidence supporting conservation decisions in order to achieve its political objectives in CCAMLR,” the spokesperson added in a written statement.
With the great-power competition currently playing out across the globe, the meeting was always going to be tense. Russia and China have long fought for more access to Antarctica’s untapped resources, and there is suspicion the two countries use the guise of scientific research to stake their claim.
As the Covid-19 pandemic significantly impacted the polar operations of other countries, both nations maintained their activities. And the US, which has jostled with Beijing and Moscow in the North Pole for decades, wants to maintain its dominance. It currently has three permanent bases but China is building its fifth station, and more ice-breakers.
Remarkably, two countries at war – Russia and Ukraine – sat down together at the table. Russia did not block a decision for Ukrainian diplomat Vitalii Tsymbaliuk to chair the Commission for the next two years.
But the stage was set for limited co-operation on the first day of the fortnight-long meeting when a Russian delegate’s speech was disrupted by a walk-out in protest at the Ukraine invasion.
Diplomatic observers were struck by how closely Russian and Chinese delegates worked together to protect and veto proposals that threatened their shared interests. Russia has repeatedly obstructed attempts to set catch limits at the closed-door meeting – but the co-ordination was somewhat new.
“China and Russia are two obstacles to making progress on marine protected areas”, one delegate said, speaking to Stuff on the condition of anonymity. “They were blocking right through the meeting, although they did agree eventually to the special meeting.”
These talks – which will take place in Santiago in the autumn – won’t have the authority to come to a decision. But it is the only third time such a meeting has been called in CCAMLR’s 40-year history.
The lack of progress is in stark contrast to the number of delegates – which grow every year, made up of scientists, diplomats and advocates from environmental NGOs.
“Some see the CCAMLR process as Western-driven, although clearly Argentina and Chile don’t fit that mould,” the delegate said. “And China is still exploring what marine resources they might be interested in the Antarctic.”
Wellington-based representatives of both countries did not respond to requests to comment.
A feud over toothfish caught off the coast of South Georgia, a remote, UK-controlled island, also set the tenor of Russia’s approach to the meeting, sources said.
At last year’s CCAMLR meeting, Moscow’s envoys rejected catch limits for the expensive delicacy – also known as Chilean seabass. London responded by quietly issuing licences to four British-flagged vessels to fish for the species in the region.
This inflamed long-standing tensions with Argentina, which claims the Falklands and South Atlantic islands, currently under British rule as Overseas Territories. The US then deemed trading in the catch as illegal, in breach of CCAMLR’s rules.
The issue – often referred to as simply ‘48.3’ for its place in the complex patchwork of CCAMLR boundaries – was not resolved.
“Russia was quite happy to play that up because clearly the disagreement between UK and Russia has got worse since [the] Ukraine [invasion,” the delegate said. “Russia basically making trouble because at the moment it has no fishing vessels in Antarctica – they haven’t for almost three years, ever since the Palmer was fingered by New Zealand for fishing illegally in the Ross Sea.
“Russia has nothing to lose, and are playing games.”
The tensions also played out in wrangling over krill. As the staple diet of seals, whales, fish, squid, penguins and other seabirds, krill are the cornerstone of the Antarctic ecosystem.
The global growth of fish farming is driving demand for the tiny crustacean which is a feed ingredient. China is pushing ahead with a major expansion, deploying at least eight vessels and building super-trawlers.
Scientists fear a detrimental effect on predator populations, which are also suffering from the impacts of warming oceans and acidification, and want to curb the commercial catch.
Almost every single animal species in Antarctica either directly relies on krill for survival, or feeds on another species that eats krill, said Andrea Kavanagh, of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy. “Worryingly, we have seen a concentration of krill fishing in recent years, with most of the catch taken from small, nearshore areas.”
Proposals which would see a ban on krill fishing in penguin feeding grounds in the Bransfield and Gerlache straits, and a large permanent no-fishing zone in the Bellingshausen Sea, an important krill spawning ground, were vetoed.
“China didn’t agree to moving forward on krill management, partly because their scientist wasn’t available, they got Covid during the meeting and left,” the delegate said. “So that created some problems.”
Alan Hemmings, a Canterbury University specialist on Antarctic governance and geopolitics,
believes the treaty system – which regulates relations amongst states in the Antarctic – is in “a bit of a mess” but the fault lies not just with China and Russia.
“We haven’t agreed anything for a very long time…and we got pretty close to having nothing out of the CCAMLR meeting that ended last Friday [November 4].”
He fears the row over 48.3 is a taste of future stalemate. “It isn’t just that the Russians block things directly involving them, but in blocking general measures they set up a ripple that runs through the system. And I think we’re going to see a lot more of this.”
Both China and Russia see conservation measures as a threat to their national economic interests, he said. Russia, in particular, is looking to prevent precedents for fishing regulations elsewhere in the world, particularly in the North Pacific. “If all of those three proposed MPAs were introduced, we would have an appreciable proportion of the circumference of the Antarctic in some kind of protected area. And there is a concern on the part of fishing states – not just confined to China and Russia – that this is a slow burn project.”
Other countries – like New Zealand – have failed to engage politically or at a high diplomatic level, he said. “It is remarkable that Jacinda Ardern goes to the Antarctic in the week of CCAMLR, actually makes no major policy announcements and doesn’t allude to any of the high level political problems we’ve got in the Antarctic but waxes on about Ernest Shackleton. It’s all so banal and low level.”
The present system is dysfunctional – but unlikely to change, Hemmings said. “It’s a shambles right now. It’s achieving nothing and if you assume we are talking about a decade long struggle with Russia and Ukraine that suggests that we’re not going to be in a position to reach consensus for the foreseeable future. We’ve got to change the way in which we make decisions.
“But the difficulty is, if we can’t get international agreement to make the current system work, it seems unlikely we’re going to agree to accept a new one.”
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