Supporters in new push for scaled back Antarctic reserve

Icebergs in Antarctica Just before a key meeting, the EU and several nations are throwing their support behind the establishment of marine protection areas in the Antarctic

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A bloc of countries has issued a joint call for the creation of marine reserves in Antarctica.

The group, which includes the US, EU, France, New Zealand and Australia, saw their initial plans thrown out by opposition from Russia earlier this year.

But the new plan suggests significant scaling down of one reserve in the hope of securing agreement.

It will be submitted to a meeting in Tasmania next week.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), made up of 25 members with interests in the Southern Ocean, has been working since 2005 to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in the region.

Icebergs in Antarctica
  • CCAMLR has established just one Marine Protected Area in the Antarctic so far.
  • They have designated 11 priority areas in the Southern Ocean from which most MPAs will be created.
  • Governments have set a goal of extending protected areas to ten percent of the world's oceans

At a special meeting in July, plans to establish two giant reserves in the Ross Sea and in east Antarctica were tabled by a number of countries.

Doubling the world's reserves

The Ross Sea proposal, supported by the US and New Zealand, would have banned commercial fishing in an area of 1.6m sq km.

The other reserve, supported by France, Australia and the EU aimed to protect 1.9m sq km on the Pacific side of Antarctica.

But Russia and the Ukraine questioned the legal basis of the plan that would have more than doubled the size of the world's marine reserves at a stroke.

Other countries, including Norway, China and Japan queried the science and the size of the proposed reserves and wanted the inclusion of a "sunset clause", which meant the decision could be reviewed in the future.

As CCAMLR operates on a consensus basis, the nations in favour of the plans were forced to withdraw.

Now ahead of the Commission's annual meeting in Hobart, the proponents of the reserves have issued revised plans and a call for their adoption.

map of proposed east aspartic protected areas Proposed marine protected areas on the east Antarctic coastal region

Last month New Zealand and the US published details of a new Ross Sea plan. It cut the size of the reserve by 40% and left a question over the permanence of the arrangement.

While the proposal for east Antarctica was also revised, it remains essentially the same in terms of the area covered.

"The original bigger Ross Sea plan is now off the table," Paulus Tak from the Pew Charitable Trust told BBC News.

"It is now for a smaller area than was originally proposed. They are making the concessions to get the opponents onboard.

"Whether that will be a useful move for Russia and the Ukraine who put forward legal objections, remains to be seen."

Further concessions feared

In today's statement, the foreign ministers call on all members of the Commission to support the plans, saying that these regions are "widely recognised for their remarkable ecological and scientific importance".

They argue that the proposals before the Commission are based on "sound and best available science and will provide a unique laboratory for marine research, and will have profound and lasting benefits for ocean conservation."

However environmental campaigners like Paulus Tak are concerned that the proponents of the MPAs will make further concessions during the meeting.

"We call upon the states to maintain the ambition level, and as such each downgrading of the proposal is a matter of some concern from our side, but we want to see a successful outcome of these negotiations."

Another issue that could hold up the MPA proposal is the US government shutdown, which could prevent the American delegation from attending.

If that happens, the discussion on protecting the Antarctic could be held off for another year.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

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