Can Good Governance Save the Antarctic?

John Weller
An Adélie penguin explodes from the water, speeding past the dangerous edge where Leopard seals may be waiting.

In Brief

Preservation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is often thought to be ensured by the Antarctic Treaty system, particularly the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. This perception is partly true and partly inaccurate: while the Antarctic Treaty System has in many ways succeeded in protecting the Antarctic environment, important conservation goals remain. This does not mean that the Treaty is inadequate but rather that it is flexible enough to address new issues and new approaches to conservation, such as the relatively recent push for the creation of marine protected areas. However, to be successful, such developments typically require years of consensus building among officials. Member states of the Treaty, primarily through the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, have been working toward the goal established at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and the 2003 World Parks Congress calling for networks of marine protected areas, including on the high seas. The 2009 endorsement by the Convention of milestones intended to culminate in proposals for a network of marine protected areas by 2012 was a major step forward. Although it remains to be seen if these milestones will be met, progress so far demonstrates that an international treaty can in fact produce effective conservation solutions for the management of the high seas.

Key Concepts

  • No one country owns Antarctica, yet its fragile environment and ecosystems require careful management. The Antarctic Treaty governs the continent and its surrounding ocean but can be slow to achieve results because consensus-based decision making is required.

  • The overarching principles in the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which regulates Southern Ocean fisheries, provide flexibility to member states for adopting new approaches to fulfill the Treaty’s conservation mandates.

  • Marine protected areas are scientifically proven tools for conserving marine ecosystems around the world. The World Parks Congress and World Summit on Sustainable Development called for large networks of marine reserves or protected areas to be in place by 2012.

  • The decision by the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to endorse milestones leading to the creation of a network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean by 2012 represents a major step forward for marine conservation.

  • Any marine protected area network in the Southern Ocean must include a large protected area in the Ross Sea. The Ross Sea represents humanity’s best remaining chance to preserve a mostly intact open-ocean ecosystem.

  • The designation of one Southern Ocean marine protected area, South Orkneys, has been a positive first step. What remains is for the extensive scientific analysis of the Ross Sea ecosystem to be translated into a concrete proposal by a Convention member for a protected area in the Ross Sea.

At the height of the Cold War, in the early 1960s, the Antarctic Treaty was an unexpectedly positive development in international relations. A successful international research program known as the International Geophysical Year, which focused on Arctic and Antarctic research, had just concluded and boasted impressive results. Many of the participating countries wanted to continue and even expand their Antarctic efforts. But first, because several countries had territorial claims to the continent, participants decided to negotiate a treaty ensuring that research could proceed unhindered. The Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959 and enacted in 1961, ensures that the continent will only be used for peaceful scientific purposes. According to Treaty language, “It is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” The Treaty left open the possibility of environmental protection measures but did not put any in place. Subsequently, several other agreements concerning aspects of Antarctica’s wildlife, living resources, and environment—especially the Environmental Protocol—have been realized, and this group of agreements forms what is now known as the Antarctic Treaty System.

International governance has a poor reputation for its inability to address problems effectively: witness the repeated failures to combat carbon emissions, the shameful management of migratory tuna stocks by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or the inability of the International Whaling Commission to end commercial whaling. An external review of the aforementioned tuna commission, for instance, found that the body is generally perceived as “an international disgrace” for its repeated failure to heed the advice of its own scientists.1 Yet there is no way other than through international cooperation to address many transnational environmental issues.

The Treaty is actually widely regarded as a success story of international governance and environmental protection. This does not mean, however, that the Antarctic enjoys comprehensive environmental protection. While important measures are in place to protect the continent itself (e.g., Antarctic Specially Protected Areas, and Specially Managed Areas), governance over the ocean south of latitude 60°S is meager. The system still needs to develop effective responses to increases in tourism and fishing as well as to the growth of biological prospecting.

We argue that, while the Treaty has made steady progress in enhancing the region’s environmental protection, marine protected areas will pose a significant test of the Treaty’s commitment to conservation. The 1982 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, pronounced “camel-are” in English) established the principles by which Southern Ocean fisheries would be managed and created the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to oversee implementation. The Commission initially progressed at a glacial pace but is now gaining momentum on designating a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012. By a process called bioregionalization, the Commission has identified 11 priority areas in which to develop marine protected areas and so far has officially designated one of these, South Orkneys. This plan is in part a response to calls from the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and the 2003 World Parks Congress to protect significant proportions of the world’s oceans by 2012. This goal is extremely ambitious considering the slow growth in MPA designations worldwide. If the target is achieved, and if the resulting protected areas are based on sound scientific principles, the Commission will enhance not only global marine protection but its own reputation as a forward-thinking body.

Emerging science on marine protected areas and marine reserves suggests that they can provide enormous ecological and economic benefits, since fish populations appear to increase inside and then spread beyond their borders.2 The designations have thus demonstrated themselves to be effective fishery management tools. For example, increased fish populations within marine protected areas in the Gulf of Maine spill over and result in bigger catches outside the borders of the protected areas. These “spillover” effects have also been observed in marine reserves around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and the Mediterranean.2 Note that the terms marine protected area and marine reserve are not necessarily interchangeable. A marine reserve typically allows no fishing and enforces strict limits on human activity, whereas conservation measures in a protected area run the gamut from minimal to substantial. Within the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the type of designation is still up for debate, and it may be that some areas will be true reserves while others will allow limited fishing.

As the world’s fourth-largest ocean, the Southern Ocean would naturally be part of any global representative network of marine protected areas. The Southern Ocean contains many unique ecosystems and species that researchers are only beginning to understand. These ecosystems and species are under increasing threat from human activity—directly through tourism and fishing and indirectly through climate change. The Ross Sea is of particular importance. It is the most productive stretch of the Southern Ocean and is globally important because researchers consider it to be the most pristine continental shelf ecosystem remaining on Earth.3


John Weller
A minke whale breaks the surface in the Ross Sea.

Within the Commission, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) is the only accredited environmental NGO but is a nonvoting observer. ASOC is composed of diverse organizations interested in the Antarctic environment. Since 2000, ASOC has been urging the Commission to develop criteria for a network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean, advocating especially for inclusion of the Ross Sea.

A network of marine protected areas, chosen based on good science, offers the best solution to the problems of addressing or adapting to climate change and fishing in the Southern Ocean. Marine protected areas, if large enough, can serve as buffer zones for species affected by climate change (polar species often have a low tolerance for temperature increases). Additionally, researchers can use such zones as reference areas for distinguishing the effects of fishing or other activities from those of climate change.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether political considerations or science will guide the designation process. Members of the Commission disagree on what constitutes “rational use” and sufficient conservation of the Southern Ocean. Some members believe there is little need for marine protected areas as long as the Commission bases fishery management decisions on science.

Achieving Protection for Antarctic Land-Based Ecosystems

Consensus is required within the Antarctic Treaty System. This often prevents rapid action and means that support for significant (and sometimes not so significant) decisions must be built over a period of years. Much important work often takes place outside of official meetings, as members try to win backing for proposed measures. This model has proved to be a mixed bag for Antarctic conservation. On the one hand, the Treaty has been slow to regulate Antarctic tourism, even after a report on the sinking of a tourist vessel revealed numerous lapses in safety. On the other hand, the failure to obtain consensus on a minerals agreement that would have legitimized resource extraction in Antarctica derailed the effort and led to a stunning turnaround and the enactment of major environmental regulations.

In the late 1970s, members of the environmental NGO community became aware of secret negotiations to develop a regulatory framework for mining on the Antarctic continent. In response, ASOC was formed, and like-minded individuals and activists from a range of Antarctic Treaty countries coalesced. Campaigners were extremely effective in obtaining secret documents and forcing the negotiations into the spotlight. Greenpeace sponsored a United Nations debate on the future of Antarctica, and nontreaty parties expressed their disapproval of the tactics used by the negotiators.

ASOC played a critical role in raising public awareness and driving public opinion about the mining discussions, promoting the idea of Antarctica as a world park that belonged to all and that deserved extensive protection. Negotiations nevertheless dragged on for years, during which time ASOC campaigners became increasingly effective in communicating with the media and in unearthing behind-the-scenes discussions. In 1988, the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities was at last agreed upon, but France and Australia refused to sign, bowing to public opinion within their own countries. Because of the Treaty’s consensus requirement, this surprising about-face killed the minerals convention.


John Weller
Weddell seals use cracks in the ice for access to the water below. The seals maintain these openings all winter long, raking their teeth along the edges to keep them from freezing shut.

Some parties still felt that the absence of language in the Treaty about exploration and exploitation warranted additional regulations. After consulting with ASOC and the environmental community, it was agreed that negotiations for an environmental protection addendum to the Treaty would begin. Then, only two years later, all parties agreed upon the Environmental Protocol, which banned mineral extraction and established environmental standards governing scientific research. The abrupt switch from a mining framework to an environmental regulation framework was a major victory for Antarctica.

The success of the Protocol also marked a shift in how many parties viewed their role in Antarctica. Many came to accept that being part of the Treaty meant conducting bona fide research and protecting fragile and unique habitats. In 1991, ASOC was granted observer status in the Treaty and was allowed to participate in official proceedings. The Treaty had been tested by the minerals negotiations, and parties ultimately decided on protection over exploitation. One important provision of the Environmental Protocol is the ability to designate protected and managed areas on land; 78 have already been declared. In many cases, this guarantees protection for marine species that breed on land, such as birds and seals. While strict enforcement is not possible, on the whole, these designations have resulted in additional protections and attention for Antarctica.

Achieving Protection for Antarctic Marine Living Resources

As parties debated mineral rights in Antarctica, they were also in the process of ratifying the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which was signed in 1980 and enacted in 1982. It was a clear victory for Antarctic marine conservation, in line with the original Treaty’s mandate that member states should give attention to the “preservation and conservation of living resources in Antarctica.”

Scientific interest in the Southern Ocean—initially driven by whaling and the British Discovery Expedition of the early 1900s—increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with interest in fishing. Several finfish species were subsequently depleted from waters of the northern continental and island shelves,4 and exploitation of Antarctic krill, the mainstay of the then-depleted baleen whales, increased. As this occurred, the parties to the Treaty adopted the Agreed Measures for the Protection of Fauna and Flora (1964) and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972), indicating a growing interest in expanding the mandate of the Treaty. Recommendations issued at biennial meetings began slowly paving the way for more formal regulation of the Southern Ocean, encouraging research on marine living resources and reiterating the importance of their protection and “rational use.”

First, the parties codified measures for Antarctic marine living resources protection as encouraged by the Treaty. Then, as interest grew in harvesting Southern Ocean resources, and as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization began to show interest in bringing the Southern Ocean under its aegis,5 the parties slowly laid the groundwork for a formal treaty to manage marine resources.

The Commission was the first organization involved in the regulation of fisheries to conceive of itself as protecting an ecosystem rather than simply managing individual stocks to maximize yield, and it maintains a positive international reputation as an exception to the poorly performing regional fisheries management organizations. Within the Commission, binding conservation measures are proposed and ratified by members. Among the group’s first conservation measures were closing some of the waters around South Georgia Island to fishing and regulating the type of equipment used in fisheries around the island. Then the marbled rockcod (Notothenia rossii) fishery in the area around South Georgia Island was closed due to overfishing. In this case, because there were few fish left and the fishing effort was already struggling, it was easy to reach a consensus. But despite the extent of overfishing, parties still delayed their decision, fearing the precedents that would be set.

In the 1980s, the fishing industry discovered the ugly but valuable Patagonian toothfish, and after its name was changed to the more palatable “Chilean sea bass,” the species quickly gained popularity. The rapid expansion of the fishery that ensued posed a significant problem for the Commission: illegal fishing exploded and represented the majority of the overall catch for several years. With no resources for enforcement or surveillance, the Commission found itself facing a crisis. The slow-growing toothfish could not withstand that level of fishing, and the longline methods used in both legal and illegal fisheries were killing seabirds by the hundreds of thousands, rapidly putting these species at risk of becoming threatened or endangered.

In 1994, the Commission instituted a conservation measure to minimize seabird bycatch, but it took several years to develop a plan to reduce the illegal toothfish catches, which in the meantime rendered all the Commission’s conservation measures, total allowable catches, and fishery closures moot. Eventually, in 1999, a catch documentation scheme was passed. It mandated that all landings of toothfish at the ports of member states be documented with details about where and by whom the fish were taken. Some states were slow to implement the system, and there was no mandated verification of the documentation. Efforts to reduce seabird bycatch proved very successful: most Southern Ocean toothfish fisheries experienced a sharp drop in seabird bycatch immediately after the measure’s implementation. Within a few years, seabird bycatch was near zero in almost all legal fisheries, except those around Kerguelen and Crozet Islands, which are under French jurisdiction (France provides information to the Commission but is not bound by the Convention).

While the Commission has not always lived up to its ideals, its precautionary, ecosystem-based approach has justified progressive conservation actions that otherwise might have been dismissed. Examples are the prohibition on bottom trawling and gill nets, on catching sharks, and on long-lining in waters shallower than 550 meters, which harms benthic communities. Because the fishing industry was not affected, all of these measures faced little contest.

Creating Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean

In the years just after 2000, growing numbers of conservationists began to endorse the idea of national parks for the ocean, typically known as marine reserves or marine protected areas. At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, participants called for a global network of marine protected areas by 2012. The next year, the World Parks Congress also recommended a global network and called for 20–30 percent of the world’s oceans to be protected from fishing by 2012. As of today, little progress has been made toward either of these goals, with only 0.8 percent of the ocean under any kind of special protection and with only about 10 percent of marine protected areas prohibiting all fishing.6 Nevertheless, the Commission has taken up the challenge of creating a network of protected areas in the Southern Ocean and, if successful, will be able to boast a significant contribution to global marine conservation. As with the creation of the Environmental Protocol, the sustained involvement of NGOs will likely play an important role in determining whether the outcome is truly a victory for marine conservation, instead of just another exercise in self-congratulation.

Since 2000, ASOC has been urging the Commission to support the creation of marine protected areas; the Commission has identified portions of the Southern Ocean that have high levels of physical heterogeneity, assuming that greater habitat variation is indicative of greater biodiversity. At a 2007 workshop, using a process called “bioregionalization,” which uses GIS to summarize pertinent data sets, the Commission identified 11 areas that should be given special attention. Other considerations include the conservation of species and their habitats and preserving reference areas that scientists can use to study the effects of fishing and climate change. ASOC achieved a major victory in 2009 when the Commission established milestones that would lead to proposals for marine protected areas within the 11 priority regions.


John Weller
Awkward on land, Adélie penguins are at home in the water.

At the 2009 meeting, the Commission also approved the first marine protected area within the Treaty zone: an area extending south from the South Orkney Islands. Though this designation represented a significant step, ASOC was disappointed that the final boundaries of this protected area, which is a no-fishing zone, were adjusted to avoid areas where some Commission members might want to fish in the future. The concern as subsequent proposals are developed for other areas is that they, too, will be subject to purely political adjustments not based on science or conservation objectives. Nevertheless, given some Commission members’ strong skepticism about marine protected areas, it is encouraging that a proposal could be approved without excessive capitulation to nonscientific concerns. If a truly representative and ecologically meaningful network of marine protected areas is to be created in the Southern Ocean, unimpeachable science will be vital. Perhaps even more important will be the continued efforts of ASOC and Convention member states that support these conservation measures.

A Ross Sea Marine Protected Area

“We can’t afford to lose the fish right now.… They are more valuable alive—carbon-based units out there in the ocean doing their thing to keep the ocean healthy and to keep us alive. We’ve got to back off, as we’ve lost 90 percent of the big fish. It’s time to protect the last 10 percent everywhere, especially in the Ross Sea.”—Sylvia Earle, International Marine Conservation Congress, 2009

Any network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean must include a large protected area in the Ross Sea region. The Ross Sea continental shelf and slope represents the “last ocean”—humanity’s best remaining chance to preserve a mostly intact open-ocean ecosystem, from which we can learn how marine ecosystems elsewhere, in this age of “moving baselines,” once functioned. The Ross Sea shelf and slope is also an area of stunning natural beauty and a haven for wildlife, with more than 40 endemic species and one group of fish that appears to have evolved there. Close to 500 species were first identified in Ross Sea waters. Though the Ross Sea shelf and slope comprise just 2 percent of the Southern Ocean, they are home to an estimated 38 percent of the world’s Adélie penguins, 26 percent of emperor penguins, 30 percent of Antarctic petrels, 6 percent of Antarctic minke whales, 50 percent of Ross Sea killer whales, and 45 percent of South Pacific Weddell seals. As warming temperatures reduce sea ice cover and restrict the habitats of many Antarctic species, the Ross Sea may also serve as a refuge; models predict a slower rate of sea ice loss in the Ross Sea than in other areas in the Antarctic (and the Arctic).

In the Ross Sea, the population of the top piscine predator, the Antarctic toothfish, is thought to be mostly intact. Many ecosystems around the world suffered unexpected effects when too many top predators were removed. Fishing for toothfish in the Ross Sea only officially began in the past decade but has already caused a contraction in the population’s range.7 The Commission’s planned total allowable catch will reduce the total spawning biomass of Antarctic toothfish by 50 percent over about thirty years (beginning in 1996). This assumes that only overall biomass matters, not the age structure of the spawning fish or the ecological repercussions. This assumption has been proven false for long-lived species such as toothfish, which attain sexual maturity at relatively late ages8,9 (on average,16 years old for Antarctic toothfish) and whose evolutionary strategy depends on individuals that will live long enough to reproduce many times. Older individuals are often better spawners, and removing them from the population often causes reproductive maturity to occur at earlier ages. This earlier maturity can become a problem in long-lived species because younger individuals produce relatively fewer larvae that are less likely to survive and reproduce.10-13 This effect is called “longevity overfishing,” because the detrimental impacts do not spring solely from a reduction in numbers but from the biological consequences of changing the age structure of the population. For species like toothfish, insufficiently precautionary management strategies can thus have a ripple effect throughout the population.

These effects would in turn have a dramatic effect on the Ross Sea ecosystem. As already mentioned, the Ross Sea, so far, has experienced fewer anthropogenic impacts than any other region on Earth and thus provides an unparalleled opportunity for scientists to learn how healthy ecosystems function. The Antarctic toothfish, a top predator, cannot be removed in large numbers without risking a trophic cascade similar to that seen when sharks are depleted from warm-water ecosystems. (The removal of major predators can precipitate explosions in prey populations, which have had a variety of negative results, including damage to reef ecosystems.)

In the polar Ross Sea, the food web is considerably less complex than those found in warmer oceans, a pattern well known in marine ecology. Fish species diversity is lower than in other coastal shelf areas, as just four families of the Southern Ocean notothenioid suborder of fish comprise 64 percent of the Ross Sea’s fish diversity. Toothfish in the Ross Sea are the primary predators of the Antarctic silverfish, which in turn is the main predator of crystal krill (Euphausia crystallorophias). When toothfish numbers are reduced, silverfish numbers will likely rise and could reduce krill numbers. As krill are the main prey for silverfish and many species of seals, whales, and penguins, the consequences for the food web could be great.

In 2009, a workshop at the International Marine Conservation Congress on the Ross Sea, featuring climatologists, biological oceanographers, and marine wildlife researchers from three nations, produced a compelling report that summarized the scientific data that could support designating a large-scale marine protected area in the Ross Sea.14 A companion report showed that almost all of the upper-level predators depend on the entire Ross Sea shelf and slope, in a mosaic fashion throughout the year, to carry on their natural history patterns.15 In planning for the South Orkney marine protected area, only the summer foraging ranges of penguins and albatross were used, a scenario that would not work in the Ross Sea. These Ross Sea reports were considered at the Commission’s Working Group on Environmental Monitoring and Management meeting in 2010, to much acclaim, and they will be important in the interim meetings held before the 2011 Commission meetings. The scientific evidence strongly supports establishing a Ross Sea marine protected area that includes the shelf and slope: “The waters overlying both the outer shelf and slope of the Ross Sea are critical to sustain the Ross Sea populations of this community of organisms.… The breeding sites of a number of the Ross Sea’s air-breathing species, seals and seabirds, are protected as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas. However, if protection includes just the breeding areas, but not the areas for feeding and non-breeding activities, then its value [will be] quite limited.”16

Another paper concluded that, “of the 95 fish species found in the Ross Sea, forty were first described from specimens taken from these waters, i.e. the Ross Sea is the type locality of these species. Seven are endemic to the Ross Sea, found nowhere else among Antarctic areas so far surveyed. That total is not huge compared to warmer waters, but the relatively low species diversity should not lead to dismissal of the fauna as uninteresting in comparison to the speciose faunas of tropical lakes, rivers and coral reefs … when considering the High Antarctic shelf, the nature of the fish diversity overshadows the numbers.”14

A Ross Sea marine protected area would preserve an evolutionarily significant area (a key consideration in the designation of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas) and ensure adequate protected habitat for Ross Sea species. Potential obstacles remain, namely that the marine protected area envisioned by proponents involves a sharp reduction in fishing, which will be opposed by countries with a financial interest in fishing. To ensure the continued health of the ecosystem, however, large, mature toothfish must remain abundant throughout much of the Ross Sea region. If fishing continues, it should be allowed only around the edges of the protected area and should target individuals in the middle age range.17 (Because toothfish inhabit different regions at different life stages, it is possible for fishers to target specific age groups.) Despite these challenges, there is considerable optimism that, in the end, a marine protected area for the Ross Sea will preserve an ecologically meaningful portion of the Southern Ocean and its unique species.