Emily Grilly – WWF Antarctic Manager
Antarctica is the last great wilderness on Earth. The surrounding oceans and icescape are home to thousands of species found nowhere else in the world. This year, we are celebrating important milestones in Antarctic conservation that serve as a reminder of the need to preserve and protect this special region.
Thirty years ago, international leaders came together, putting their differences aside for the benefit of the planet - to establish the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (also known as the Madrid Protocol). It bans mining and preserves the continent as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. It was one of the greater conservation successes of the 20th century.
From 11-16 October 2021, the annual Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources(CCAMLR) meets for the 40th anniversary in Hobart, Australia. As part of the Antarctic Treaty, CCAMLR is an important international organisation responsible for the conservation of species living in the Southern Ocean. Originally established in response to rampant unregulated krill fishing in the 1970s, CCAMLR now meets annually to make decisions on fisheries management, species conservation and the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs).
The Antarctic is fragile and increasingly vulnerable.
CCAMLR is now more relevant and important than ever.
The science is clear - Antarctica is ground zero for the climate crisis. Climate change is warming the Southern Ocean, putting habitats and biodiversity under increasing threat, influenced from afar by impacts of increased greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. The region has lost more sea ice in just four years than the Arctic did in the last 34 years . Loss of sea ice is happening at a faster rate than species can adapt.
The Antarctic is home to giant swarms of Antarctic krill that find refuge under sea ice. They are the superheroes of the Southern Ocean, providing sustenance to iconic Antarctic species such as whales, penguins, seals, seabirds and fish. Along the Antarctic Peninsula, krill distribution is shifting further south, forcing their predators to expend more energy migrating further in search of food.
Penguins are especially vulnerable. Spending time in Antarctica as a field biologist, I saw first-hand the problems they face in trying to adapt to warming temperatures and fluctuations in food availability. Emperor penguins, who spend their entire lives on ice, will be pushed to the brink of extinction by 2100 if climate change continues at its current rate.
Also, we are starting to see impacts of krill fishing on local penguin populations. As global fisheries become depleted, there is growing interest to expand fishing throughout important habitats for wildlife. Species are facing increased competition for their natural food source against a very unnatural predator, fishing vessels.
If Antarctic krill were to disappear, the Southern Ocean marine ecosystem would collapse.
There is a renewed hope to deliver global commitments and protect our ocean
Protecting nature is part of the solution to fight back. As governments around the world pledge to fight climate change at home, there is growing political momentum to deliver an innovative commitment by CCAMLR to establish a network of marine protected areas around Antarctica – creating a safety net for wildlife while protecting these key ocean habitats.
Recently we have heard powerful statements from nations reaffirming their commitment to conserving Antarctica.
In April, the US stated their support for Southern Ocean marine protected areas, noting “these areas are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and must be protected”. This was followed by 15 countries and the EU issuing a joint declaration calling on CCAMLR members “to work together towards the adoption of new MPAs”.
The G7 summit made a statement in June: “[We, the leaders of the Group of Seven] fully support the commitment of CCAMLR to develop a representative system of MPAs in the Southern Ocean based on the best available scientific evidence”.
Three marine protected areas are under active negotiations. If passed, CCAMLR would be protecting 3.6 million km2 of critical habitats - almost half the size of the continent of Australia!
For 30 years, WWF has been working to conserve Antarctica and be a voice for this region. Having joined WWF a few months ago to lead the Antarctic team, I am excited to return to CCAMLR and add our voice for this global support. WWF is calling for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. Protecting the Antarctic is possible, and I look forward to working with WWF to achieve conservation outcomes for the wildlife that call this remarkable region home.
 Parkinson, C. L. (2019). A 40-y record reveals gradual Antarctic sea ice increases followed by decreases at rates far exceeding the rates seen in the Arctic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(29), 14414 LP – 14423. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906556116
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 Watters, G.M., Hinke, J.T. & Reiss, C.S. Long-term observations from Antarctica demonstrate that mismatched scales of fisheries management and predator-prey interaction lead to erroneous conclusions about precaution. Sci Rep 10, 2314 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-59223-9