Why the Ross Sea needs protection?

The first question that comes to mind when reading about the MPA (Marine Protected Area) is why the Ross Sea needs protection. There are the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid protocol, isn’t that enough? Now the Antarctic Treaty states that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only (Art. I) and the Madrid Protocol (or actually the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty) states the Antarctic continent to be a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science (Art. 2). Furthermore, it prohibits any activities relating mineral resources, except for scientific purposes. This protocol is up for renewal in 2048.

The Ross Ice Shelf near Ross Island

Now, this is all excellent news, but the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid Protocol only deals with land masses south of 60ºS. This means that the Ross Sea, being a sea, is not covered by this. As it is very remote, not a lot of activities are going on in the Ross Sea. Only a few fishing and expedition cruise vessels visit the area, and there are some research stations.

Pack ice in the Ross Sea

The new MPA mainly focusses on human activities related to the marine resources, notably the Antarctic Toothfish. This large fish is an important predator in the Ross Sea ecosystem and one that we know very little off. This fish is getting increasingly popular as ‘Chilean Sea Bass’ in restaurants. Even though there are not many fishing ships, they were taking a reasonable amount of fish from the area. At least, that’s what we think, as the life cycle of the fish is not fully understood and the population size is poorly known… The new MPA bans fisheries (both commercial and scientific) from large parts of the area, other parts being open for limited scientific (krill) fishing.

The downside of this all is that the total quota for Antarctic Toothfish is a little higher as before. This is was needed as CCAMLR, the organisation that deals with Antarctic marine resources, only reach agreement through consensus. However, with most of the spawning grounds inside the MPA, the reproduction and initial growth of the species is protected, which should give them a reasonable head start.

The pictures here show some of the main features of the Ross Sea: a lot of sea ice (even though part of it is open most of the year, a polynya, due to strong catabatic winds) and in the top picture the Ross Ice Shelf dominating the southern shore of the sea.

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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