It was many decades ago that several leading nations essentially carved up the continent of Antarctica, and so you had nations like the U.S. Russia, Great Britain, and others exploring and studying this hostile, austere, but starkly beautiful landscape. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was put into place which effectively demilitarized Antarctica, recognizing its primary value as a scientific laboratory. And in 1991 (made fully effective in 1998), the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty banned all mining and designated Antarctica as a "natural reserve devoted to peace and science."
So much for the protection of the continent. But what about the seas that surround it?
The oceans that surround Antarctica are extremely rich in marine life including krill which is one of the fundamental building blocks of a marine ecosystem. And it has been a source of major commercial fishing for several nations including Russia, Norway, Korea, New Zealand, the UK, and Spain. The Ross Sea, which hugs the Antarctica coast almost equi-distant between South America and Australia, is a particularly fertile ground for commercial fishing. However, as the rest of the world's seas are showing evidence of overfishing, it's only a matter of time for Antarctica to potentially suffer the same fate.
To address the future of the seas of Antarctica, several leading conservation organizations have banded together to promote the Antarctic Ocean Alliance. The Alliance's mission is to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) and no-take reserves around the icy continent, thereby providing the same measure of protection for the oceans as is afforded the land.
The organizations include the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), Oceana, Greenpeace, Mission Blue, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Last Ocean, Oceans 5, Forest & Bird, and several others. Famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, head of Mission Blue, has been an avid spokesperson for the coalition and its goals (see video below) and through her public promoting and that of the other organizations, it is hoped that there will be a sufficient groundswell of support to help motivate the policymakers.
“As the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has set a time frame for a representative system of marine protected areas by 2012, there is an unprecedented window of opportunity to establish this network in the oceans around Antarctica as a legacy for future generations,” said the Antarctic Ocean Alliance in a public statement.
Developing Antarctic MPAs would be an ambitious project and the cumulative end result would be the establishment of the largest collection of MPAs on the planet.
Steve Campbell of the Alliance said, "The biggest marine reserve in the world at the moment is about 600,000 sqkm but we know that there are areas around Antarctica which could certainly add up to a lot more than that. We've identified about 19 regions around Antarctica where there could be a marine reserve or marine protected areas set up and this would establish a network of areas all the way around the continent of Antarctica and would be put in place for all time we hope."
The Antarctic Ocean Alliance has produced a brief video that clearly explains the situation and their goals. It shows how, due to commercial overfishing, the Antarctic's seas stand as an oasis surrounded by depleted waters. With the impact of climate change already threatening the continent's ice masses and surrounding ocean temperatures (which has worldwide implications as the world's polar regions act as generators of current, temperature and weather patterns across the globe), it would seem that protecting the marine life which call these chilly waters home would be a positive step. However, getting consensus from nations and being able to effectively enforce the security and integrity of the MPAs could be the greatest challenge.
"The problem at the moment is that as fisheries resources around the world come under more and more pressure, there are going to be more distant water-fishing nations who want to go to the oceans around Antarctica to extract protein," said Campbell. "And they are going to do it either legally or illegally."
Read about the Antarctic Ocean Alliance in Fish Info & Services.
Visit the Antarctic Ocean Alliance website.
Read about the history of Antarctica in Wikipedia.