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Antarctic MPA Talks Fail Again: Can the Promise of Protection be Fulfilled?

Members of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance demonstrate their unhappiness with the failure to designate MPAs at this year's meeting. Photo credit: Antarctic Ocean Alliance.
MPA supporters demonstrate their unhappiness with the failure to designate MPAs at this year’s meeting. Photo credit: Antarctic Ocean Alliance.

Well, that was a bust. After negotiations to create marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean failed for the third time in two years last week, it’s difficult to fully express the mood of the government delegates and NGOs who supported the MPAs. Perhaps it is best represented by this photo. Although there were positive signs before and during the meeting that progress would be made, ultimately it was the same old story, with Russia and Ukraine blocking progress on both proposed MPAs.

The sense of frustration within the meeting was more palpable than ever. Getting a group of countries to agree on anything usually presents a challenge, but the problem with this process has been trying to understand what changes to the proposed MPAs that opponents require to change their minds. As a brief overview, All the countries in the Commission on the Conservation for Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) have discussed MPAs for many years, and since CCAMLR is a consensus-based organization, any single member can block any decision. Yet all countries agreed to the creation of an MPA network, and separately agreed on a framework for that network. Many within CCAMLR now wonder why all countries went along with those decisions if they did not really support them, and had no intention of honoring their commitments.

Even beyond the MPA debate, these repeated failures do not bode well for CCAMLR as an institution, or for the ability of the international community to take action on protecting the oceans. The system of treaties that governs the Antarctic continent and ocean is often lauded as a model for international cooperation and environmental stewardship. The language in CCAMLR’s underlying treaty, which was signed in 1980, seems progressive even today. Yet when states do not negotiate in good faith, and do not appear to have much motivation to fulfill their obligations, it is difficult to conclude that those words have translated into any real change in attitudes. The MPA debate in CCAMLR has been dominated by concerns about the impact of MPAs on access to current or potential fisheries, not the ecological values that the MPAs would protect. This “fishing first” attitude is exactly what CCAMLR’s treaty set out to avoid.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect was that some countries who had previously given only tepid support for MPAs seemed to have gained some additional enthusiasm during this round. Although this change of heart may have been due to the fact that both proposals were scaled back significantly, it was promising that so many former skeptics now openly embrace MPAs. MPA proponent countries have given strongly positive statements to the media in the days following the meeting, signalling their willingness to try to sustain the momentum gained at this meeting. That’s a good sign that some in the international community don’t plan to give up after initial setbacks.

CCAMLR’s MPA process was and is a test case for how high-seas protection might be accomplished. The remote Southern Ocean lacks a permanent local population or widespread industrial fishing, two factors that often complicate MPA creation. Protecting the Antarctic should have been relatively easy compared to protecting the Arctic, for example. Furthermore, CCAMLR has a long history of leadership in implementing progressive management principles. Although this has yet to translate into a good outcome on MPAs, there is still hope that it can live up to its ideals. No matter how much opposition they face, MPA supporters must now work harder than ever to convince CCAMLR countries to provide meaningful protection for Antarctica’s marine ecosystems. Ensuring the health of our oceans for future generations is worth the fight.