By David Jolly, The New York Times, September 10, 2013
PARIS — A proposal by the United States and New Zealand to create a huge ocean reserve in Antarctic waters has been sharply reduced in scale after opposition from Russia and other nations with large fishing industries. Environmentalists warned that the ambitious project was being badly undermined.
The Ross Sea marine protected area that the two governments proposed last year was to have set aside about 875,000 square miles of the Southern Ocean where commercial fishing would be sharply limited. The area’s relatively pristine ecosystem is crucial to the survival of thousands of species, including whales, seals and penguins, as well as the small fish and crustaceans on which they depend.
On Friday, though, New Zealand announced that the overall size of the proposed reserve was being reduced by 40 percent to gain the support of member nations on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the international body that sets conservation policy for the Southern Ocean, of which the Ross Sea is a part. Commission delegates are scheduled to meet next month in Hobart, Australia, to consider the proposal.
It was clear in July that the American-New Zealand proposal was on shaky ground after a commission meeting in Bremerhaven, Germany, broke up without agreement. Supporters of the proposal expected delegates there to work on ironing out details, and were stunned when Russia and Ukraine raised legal and procedural questions that halted the discussion, and questioned the commission’s authority to create such reserves. Norway, China and Japan led other fishing nations in calling for smaller reserves, and for “sunset clause” provisions that would allow for the possibility of eventual commercial exploitation of the areas.
Most of the fishing activity in the Ross Sea now is directed at the slow-maturing Patagonian toothfish, often marketed as Chilean sea bass. But there is growing interest in harvesting krill, the tiny creatures that are a pillar of the Southern Ocean ecosystem, and many fishing nations do not want to seal off any future possibilities as fish stocks elsewhere in the world are depleted.
Nongovernmental organizations have accused Washington and Wellington of caving in without a fight. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a coalition of 30 environmental groups, said on Monday that the scaled-down version of the proposal was a “tactical mistake and a significant retreat for Southern Ocean protection.”
Andrea Kavanagh, a spokeswoman for the Pew Charitable Trusts on Antarctic issues called it “baffling.” The decision to make such a large concession before the Hobart meeting has even begun, she said, means that by the time a deal is reached, the reserve might be only half its original size.
“What is so disturbing is that this is the new starting line,” she said, “and the permanence of it is now up for negotiation.”
Evan T. Bloom, the head of the American delegation to the Antarctic conservation commission, said that the most important parts of the initiative remained intact and that the reserve would still be the world’s largest.
“I know there are a number of stakeholders who are particularly concerned about the changes we’ve made,” Mr. Bloom said, “but we think it’s necessary to take into account the views of members of the commission and the scientific committee.”
A concurrent proposal, championed by Australia, France and the European Union, for a network of seven protected areas in the eastern Antarctic region is also being revised for the Hobart meeting, though the changes that have been made so far relate to how they will be established, not their sizes.
Nongovernmental groups have accused the Russians of negotiating in bad faith. They point out that many of the nations that are now balking at creating marine reserves had pledged in 2010 at a United Nations conference in Nagoya, Japan, to set aside 10 percent of the world’s oceans for conservation by 2020. Currently, less than 1 percent is protected, and the goal is almost certain to go unmet.
Dmitry Kremenyuk, the head of the Russian delegation to the conservation commission, said accusations that Russia had blocked progress “would not be correct.” He acknowledged that his country had raised scientific and legal questions about the basis for the reserves, but he said other countries had also expressed misgivings. The objections raised in Bremerhaven were part of “a standard way of negotiating,” he said.
Mr. Kremenyuk suggested that the revised Ross Sea proposal might meet with a better reception in Hobart, and that the European-Australian proposal for the eastern Antarctic would also have to be revised.
“They’ll have to rearrange their priorities, and then it might work,” he said. “Cast away the zones that are less significant, and retain the top priority ones.”