Hopes Dim to Protect World's 'Last Ocean' from Human Destruction

An international agreement to create two massive marine sanctuaries in the Antarctic that could protect over two million square kilometers in the region was weakened once again this week, potentially leaving the pristine waters—referred to by conservationists as the world’s “Last Ocean”—open to overfishing, oil drilling, and humanity’s rapacious hunger for resources in the years ahead.

Delegates from 25 nations converged this week for a week-long gathering of The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Australia to consider vast marine conservation proposals in the Ross Sea and waters off of East Antarctica.

“These are among our last intact marine areas, and they deserve meaningful, permanent protection, not halfway measures.” –Andrea Kavanagh, Pew Charitable Trusts

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Though previous talks had already resulted in scaled back ambitions, hopes remained high for what proponents of the sanctuaries said could still be the largest marine conservation areas ever created. Those hopes, however, were partially dashed when the delegates from New Zealand proposed a “sunset clause,” which would deem any agreement temporary, allowing the possible reopening of areas to fishing and drilling within 15 years.

This move, critics argue, renders the entire agreement moot as only permanent protection can save the area from industrial devastation.

“We are worried about the permanence of the marine protected areas as there is talk of 15 years or 50 years as a sunset clause,” Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ southern ocean sanctuary campaign, told The Guardian.

“These areas need to be permanent, any less than that is not good enough,” said Kavanagh. “If you think of the life of some of these species, such as deep sea corals and toothfish, 15 years is ridiculous.”

The ‘sunset’ clause by New Zealand follows a series of strains in the negotiations since last October, which have already diminished the strength of a possible agreement. 

Earlier this summer, Russia and Ukraine vetoed a proposed fishing ban in the region and the overall area for the sanctuary has already been cut by 40%.

The remaining conservation area in question would still be the largest to date, but would only double the 1% of the world’s oceans that are currently protected.

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