Less than 1 percent of the world's oceans are set aside as protected areas, but diplomats meeting now in Australia could substantially increase that figure.
Delegates from 24 nations and the European Union have convened to consider proposals to create vast new marine protected areas around Antarctica.
This same group met over the summer and didn't reach consensus, so it's now considering a scaled-back proposal.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources exists principally to regulate fishing around Antarctica. But some members — including the United States — have been pushing the organization to create vast new marine protected areas. One proposed region would shield swaths of the Ross Sea. A second would apply to the waters off East Antarctica. The potential protected areas are getting a push from conservationists like Bob Zuur at WWF-New Zealand.
"Last year I sailed through the Ross Sea," Zuur said at a news conference Wednesday in Hobart, Australia. "I saw dozens of whales, hundreds of seals and albatrosses and thousands of penguins. And that was just the wildlife on top of the water. The wildlife on the seafloor rivals that of the tropics. This area is really the Serengeti of the southern seas."
That advocacy is backed by the scientists who report to CCAMLR (participants call it "camalar"). Marine biologist and fisheries scientist Christopher Jones is chairman of the group's scientific committee. And at the news conference in Australia Wednesday he said members of that committee agree that human activity in the area should be limited, to ensure the long-term health of the ecosystem.
"Whether or not the science is adequate is not the issue here," Jones said. The real issue, he suggested, "is the political will."
CCAMLR already met in July but failed to reach the required consensus to set aside these areas. In particular, conservationists say, Russia and Ukraine balked at creating huge zones where fishing would be off limits forever. Toothfish, sold in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass, is harvested in some of these areas. The marine preserve would still leave some fishing grounds open but would close others, including sensitive spawning grounds of toothfish and other species.
After the July meeting, the United States and New Zealand scaled back the size of the regions of Ross Sea they proposed to protect by 40 percent. That would still make it the largest marine preserve in the world.
"I think all of us were disappointed that the Ross Sea proposal was reduced in size," said Andrea Kavanagh at the Hobart news conference. "We are hopeful this is the last time it will be watered down, and if it's passed as it is, we'd all be quite supportive of it."
Negotiators now plan to spend more than a week seeing whether they can come to a consensus. If they can, that could also open the door to discussions about creating additional marine protected areas around Antarctica. CCAMLR's scientific committee has identified nine areas in seas around the continent as candidates for preservation.
These waters have had less human disturbance than any other oceans on Earth.
"To get a consensus on having this network in place is going to be quite a long process," says Jones, the committee's chairman. "We've already made a lot of progress, though."
One small preserve off the South Orkney Islands is already on the books. And creating one or two vast preserves at this meeting could be a huge step forward.