On 27/28 October 2016, members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (the “CCAMLR”) agreed unanimously to establish a marine protected area in the Ross Sea, a deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica (the “MPA”), with special protection from human activities. 

The world’s largest marine protected area (1.55 million km2) located in the Ross Sea is said to be Earth’s most pristine marine ecosystem.  The Ross Sea is home to 38% of the world’s Adelie penguins, 26% of the Emperor penguins, 30% of the Antarctic petrels and around 6% of the Antarctic minke whales.  It is also home to a large number of krill that serves as food for whales and seals and whose oil is critical for salmon farming.  Nutrients from the deep waters of the Ross Sea are carried on currents around the entire planet. 

The new MPA will limit, or entirely prohibit, certain activities in order to meet specific conservation, habitat protection, ecosystem monitoring and fisheries management objectives.  It will provide protection to marine species, biodiversity, habitat and foraging and nursery areas and can help in rebuilding fish stocks, supporting ecosystem processes, monitoring ecosystem change and sustaining biological diversity.  Approximately 72% of the MPA will be a “no-take” zone that prohibits all fishing and where nothing can be removed including marine life and minerals.  There will also be special zones where krill and toothfish fishing will be allowed for research purposes. 

The proposal to establish the MPA in the Ross Sea was initially put forward by the United States and New Zealand in 2011.  This was followed by five years of negotiations on specific issues, including the boundaries of the MPA, its duration and the details of the research zones.  According to the CCAMLR Executive Secretary Andrew Wright, the MPA represents an “almost unprecedented level of international cooperation regarding a large marine ecosystem comprising important benthic and pelagic habitats”.

The new MPA will come into force on 1 December 2017.  Its duration was one of the key questions in the negotiations.  Ultimately, the parties agreed on 35 years.  The specific details of implementation of the MPA remain to be negotiated between the CCAMLR members.

The Ross Sea MPA represents the latest in a series of CCAMLR marine conservation efforts.  The CCAMLR, comprising 25 governments (including the EU), was established as a multilateral response to the increased commercial interest in Antarctic krill and the over-exploitation of marine resources.  In 2009, it established the world’s first high-seas MPA, the South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA in the south Atlantic.  

Marine protection has gained momentum in recent years.  In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on the development of an international legally-binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.  The Ross Sea MPA could thus set a precedent not only for other high-seas negotiations around the world, such as the Arctic, but also in UN’s attempts to develop a new marine biodiversity treaty.