Breakthrough on Southern Ocean MPAs

Alistair Graham

The annual CCAMLR Commission meeting finished in Hobart in early November – that’s the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the international body with a conservation mandate for controlling relevant activities in the Southern Ocean, with its Secretariat based in Hobart.  I had the privilege of representing Australian conservation organisations on the Australian government delegation, as I have done for the last few years.

In an historic decision, CCAMLR 2012 (or ‘XXX’ in UN-speak) adopted a Conservation Measure setting out the general principles and procedures for establishing systems and networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) around the whole Southern Ocean. 

A couple of years ago, CCAMLR decided that it would seek to roll out a network of representative MPAs to give effect to the commitment of governments at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to do so ‘by 2012’.  Very sensibly, this earlier CCAMLR decision allowed member countries: (a) to take a ‘stepwise’ approach (i.e., once regionalisation had been worked out as the basis for regional networks, an MPA could be designated and then management arrangements worked out later); and (b) to explore different ‘approaches’ (i.e. there was no need to agree on a standard approach before proposals could be developed and considered – indeed, there is a job to be done to work out which approaches might work).

The process had been kicked off by an expert Southern Ocean ‘approaches to regionalisation’ workshop convened and funded by WWF (Australia) held in Hobart in 2007, while Australia and Mexico co-convened a global workshop in Mexico City on biogeographical approaches for benthic and pelagic ocean systems and the Convention on Biological Diversity had a protected areas workshop process under way which included looking at high seas MPAs .  All these initiatives were driven by the same WSSD commitment and all served as critical confidence-building exercises among both academics and officials.

This all adds up to next year being ‘the big one’ – when one or more of the 30 or so member countries of the CCAMLR Commission can propose MPAs, alone or in groups, to form part of the ocean-wide system envisaged.  There are currently four proposals in the pipeline for MPAs in high seas areas:

1. Both New Zealand and the USA have proposed MPAs for the Ross Sea (where NZ asserts a sovereign interest and both NZ and the US concentrates their activities) – which it is hoped will be reconciled into a single, joint proposal for next year where the key issue is how accommodating of commercial fishing interests one is obliged to be.

2. Australia has proposed a network of MPAs off East Antarctica (the part that it is most familiar with and where it asserts a sovereign interest) – this proposal is grand and comprehensive to the point of being scary to some.

3. The UK has proposed MPAs be established for retreating ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula (where it, Chile and Argentina focus their scientific interests and/or assert a sovereign interest) – there’s a lot of interest in having a good scientific look at newly exposed seabed as ice shelves retreat before some fisher blunders through.

Additionally, there is already one CCAMLR high seas MPA, established last year – to the south of the South Orkney Islands (proposed by the UK and modified to exclude a Russian exploratory crab fishery proposal).  The extent to which this acts as a model or precedent for other MPA proponents to follow remains a matter of dispute – for a variety of reasons. On top of this, various coastal states have declared MPAs within EEZs (exclusive economic zone) around their sub-Antarctic  islands while others are developing proposals.  Australia led this process in designating MPAs in its EEZ around Heard and Macdonald Islands on the Kerguelen Plateau – an outcome for which Howard government Minister Ian Macdonald, WWF’s Marg Moore and Austral Fisheries, the main fishing company involved, deserve much of the credit.

Meanwhile, back in the present, a recent CCAMLR workshop in Brest, France, earlier this year reviewed available information and progress in developing MPAs and, among other things, proposed dividing up the Southern Ocean into nine ‘planning domains’ for the purpose of developing regional networks of MPAs.  CCAMLR adopted this proposal from the workshop and has encouraged the membership to go out and develop proposals for MPAs and networks of MPAs based on these domains. 

CCAMLR also agreed to support three more MPA workshops: one to look at the overall, oceanwide situation; one to look more closely at the Western Antarctic Peninsula/Scotia Arc planning domain, and another to look at the sub-Antarctic/Indian Ocean domain.  All this work is intended to culminate in a suite of decisions at CCAMLR next year, where much of a comprehensive system of MPAs will be designated.  Given the shortness of time, it is probable that proposals covering other planning domains will take another year or maybe two to develop – but, with luck, very substantial progress towards the WSSD 2012 deadline will have been made by the deadline.

Declaring MPAs is a controversial thing at the best of times – as we know only too well in Tasmania.  But on the high seas – where no country exercises jurisdiction over anything other than any vessels flying its flag – setting up, let alone managing, MPAs remains a diplomatic work in progress!  These kinds of regional international agreements continue to operate under frustratingly secretive rules of engagement which mean that I am not at liberty to give details of how such a progressive result was achieved.  Suffice it to say that Australia led the charge and it was not easy.  AAD, the Australian Antarctic Division based in Kingston, south of Hobart, with its new Director, Tony Fleming, did a wonderful job, with great support from other agencies and a wide range of other countries in delivering this result.

But, as the fishing nations have always made clear, getting MPAs designated is the easy bit – we still need to get consensus on management arrangements before any conservation controls can be instituted.  In other words, it will be a long, hard struggle to get a system of MPAs in place, and harder still to establish any no-take zones or reserves within such MPAs, to make them effective conservation instruments.  A key issue remains how restraining commercial activity can be justified, with limited information – making a scientific judgement that an MPA proposal is based on ‘best available science’ is a fairly easy scientific call, but the next political step of agreeing that ‘sufficient information’ is available to justify a management restriction is something else.  It will be interesting to see which countries had their fingers crossed when they signed up to support application of the precautionary principle.

A major bright spot on the political horizon is the arrival of a new NGO, the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA) – launched with substantial funding from the Washington-based Oceans-5 group of foundations with a shared marine conservation interest.  Its interest is in establishing no-take marine reserves, centred on wanting to make the Ross Sea the ‘jewel in the crown’ of a Southern Ocean-wide network of such reserves.  It will be very interesting to see how this new energy fits into the rather complacent consensus that habitually pervades CCAMLR networks nowadays.