Science & Environment

'Deep concern' as deal to protect Antarctic seas fails

Penguins in Antarctica
Image caption The commission was considering proposals for marine reserves in two critical areas of the Ross Sea

Governments meeting in Australia have failed to reach agreement on new marine protected areas for the Antarctic ocean.

They have deferred a decision until July 2013 when all the relevant science will be considered.

Environmental groups have expressed deep concern about the lack of consensus on how to develop a network of protected zones.

They blame Russia, China and Ukraine for blocking agreement.

For the past two weeks the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has been meeting in Tasmania.

Hot target

Made up of representatives from 24 governments and the European Union, it has been considering proposals for the establishment of marine reserves in two critical areas of the Southern Ocean.

Many parts of Antarctica have been coming under increasing pressure as the growing global demand for sea food means the region's rich resources are increasingly targeted.

Climate change and increased acidification of the waters are also likely to affect the food sources and habitats of many species in the region including penguins, seals and whales.

Image caption Proposed marine protected areas on the east Antarctic coastal region

At the meeting the United States and New Zealand put forward competing plans to create a marine protected area of 1.6 million square kilometres in the Ross Sea.

Another proposal would have created a reserve zone around East Antarctica - At around 1.9 million square kilometres, it would have covered an area almost three times the size of France.

Environmental groups had called for public participation via online petitions. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA) said that 1.2 million people had supported calls for large scale protection areas.

Hollywood star Leonardo Di Caprio wrote an email saying that as whales and penguins can't speak for themselves there should be a "massive wave of public pressure" to drive forward the plans for restrictions.

But ultimately that pressure failed to deliver agreement.

Campaigners were critical of the failure to move forward with the proposals. WWF expressed "deep concern".

Speaking to BBC News, Steve Campbell of the AOA said he was also very disappointed with the results.

"There are competing interests, in terms of commercial interests and in terms of the economic control of these areas, we floundered essentially at the end of the talks."

Sad and angry

He praised the constructive contributions of a number of countries including the United States, Australia and the UK. But with consensus of all 25 members needed for progress, some countries refused to compromise on the proposals.

"At the end of the day it seems that countries like Russia, Ukraine and China couldn't really make it work - and we're hoping that at the next meeting they'll come with a stronger commitment to the conservation objectives of the commission."

Jim Barnes, the executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition was also disappointed with the outcome.

"I am feeling sad and angry" he said. "This responsibility, and this failure, rests with all the members."

The focus will now turn to a special session of the Commission which will meet in Germany in July 2013. Activists say the situation is grave and there can be no backsliding on decision at that point.

Many still have hope that agreement can be found.

"There's a number of factors involved and it is quite complex," said Steve Campbell, "but I do believe that CCAMLR has a history of creating conservation outcomes and I believe they can do it again"

More on this story