SYDNEY • Talks have opened in Australia to create two vast marine sanctuaries aimed at protecting the pristine wilderness of Antarctica, with Russia and China key to whether they succeed.
The fate of the plans to shield critical areas of ocean around the frozen continent is in the hands of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) at its annual meeting in Hobart, which began yesterday and will run until Oct 28.
Attempts to create both an Australian-backed East Antarctic scheme and a US-New Zealand bid for a protected zone in the Ross Sea have been repeatedly blocked due to a lack of consensus.
Campaigners at the talks said there was broad agreement among all 24 member countries and the European Union, except China and Russia, which is chairing this year's meeting.
Antarctic Ocean Alliance project director Mike Walker pointed to a recent US decision to expand the huge Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off Hawaii as evidence of growing global momentum to designate Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
"Commitments for almost 4 million sq km of MPAs have been made in the past weeks," he said.
"This is a clear indication to all the parties participating in the meeting in Hobart that there is a growing momentum for greater ocean conservation, and Antarctic's oceans and marine life should be next."
At last year's meeting, China finally offered support for the Ross Sea sanctuary, but still opposed the Australian-led East Antarctic reserve, campaigners said. Russia continues to drag its feet on both, citing geo-political issues and concerns about their size.
But Ms Andrea Kavanagh, director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said she is upbeat that Moscow could fall into line.
"As the chair of CCAMLR, Russia is approaching this year's negotiations positively," she said.
She cited Russia designating 2017 as the Year of Ecology and its move to increase the size of the MPA around Franz Josef Land in the Arctic as reasons for confidence.
Both reserve proposals have been on the table with CCAMLR since 2011. Each has been modified as members have debated how to manage the region, which environmentalists say is home to more than 10,000 unique species, including seals and colossal squid. It is also critical for scientific research.
Another key issue in Hobart includes the effective and sustainable management of fishing krill, small crustaceans that are a cornerstone of the Antarctic eco-system.
"Current harvests are well below CCAMLR's total allowable catch, but demands on the fishery are expanding as krill is recognised for its value as fish meal and in medical products and supplements," said Ms Gillian Slocum, the Australian delegation leader.