Why failure of deal on Antarctic marine sanctuaries matters

International efforts to create two vast marine sanctuaries to protect the pristine wilderness of Antarctica failed for the fifth time on Friday. However, delegates at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources said China's support for one reserve and Russia's commitment to further talks gave them hope. RFI explains why this move is important.

Antarctica's Ross Sea is the last pristine and intact marine ecpsustem on Earth.
Antarctica's Ross Sea is the last pristine and intact marine ecpsustem on Earth. USA Government/Flickr

What exactly was debated in Tasmania, Australia?

Delegates from 24 countries plus the European Union have been discussing two proposals at the annual summit of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). First, the creation of two marine protected zones, one in the East Antarctic coastal region and in the Ross Sea, also known as the "last ocean".

The US and New Zealand-backed Ross Sea proposal was this year enlarged to more than 1.5 million square kilometres, although the overall no fishing zone was slightly reduced to about 1.1 million square kilometres.

The second proposed protected area, the Australian, French and EU-backed East Antarctic sanctuary, is for a one million square kilometre zone over four areas where some fishing and research would be allowed, with environmental restrictions.

Why are these Antarctic areas important?

According to experts, the "last sea" is home to more than 10,000 unique species, including seals and colossal squid. It is also critical for scientific research. It’s the last pristine polar sea in the world.

“Marine protected areas are really important to make sure that the ecosystem is preserved,” says Andrea Kavanagh the director of the Pew Charitable Trusts who attended the conference. The Ross Sea is called the ‘Last Ocean’ because it has the most pristine and intact ecosystem left on the planet. That makes it incredibly valuable, not just for its own intrinsic value, but also because scientists really need intact ecosystems to look at, when they’re looking at the effect of climate change.”

Both reserve proposals have been on the table since 2011, why have the discussions stalled?

The issue the delegates have here is that the proposals require consensus from all 24 member countries and the EU. And so far Russia has been the one blocking any deal to be signed.

It didn't help either that China only indicated at the last minute it would support the Ross Sea reserves.

“We’re disappointed by the latest developments,” says Andrew Marshall, a campaigner with Greenpeace Australia. “But there’s a few positive things: China seems to understand the importance of the Antarctic, but Russia doesn’t agree. Unfortunately what we are seeing is a geopolitical battle over the North and South pole, and that’s the worst possible outcome for the environment.”

Is there hope that a deal might be signed next year?

According to officials there, there is. Russia has said it will attend the talks next year.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully also welcomed China's support as a "major step", saying the proposal was designed to balance scientific, environmental and fishing interests. "We also welcome Russia's statement that it is open to working with members on the MPA ahead of the next CCAMLR meeting in 2016," he said.

“The CCAMLR only meets once a year,” says Andrea Kavanagh. “That is why we’re so unfortunate that this deal wasn’t reached until today. There was a lot of delays that happened at the beginning of the meeting, and we do think the parties could have moved a lot faster. But, nevertheless, we have this proposal now, and we have China, on record, supporting it, so we’re certain that, over the coming year, the US and New Zealand, will work together with the other countries to lign them up to have them on board, so next year we’ll be able to walk in and sign a deal.”

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