Blue Diplomacy: Interpreting the New Ross Sea Marine Protected Area

antarctica

Antarctica. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, becoming the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the continent. His visit will bring international attention to the new Ross Sea Marine Protected Area (MPA) and showcase the Obama Administration’s commitment to conservation and acting on climate change. But, if Antarctica is already ‘protected’ by the Antarctic Treaty System and Madrid Protocol, why did 24 countries and the European Union need to sign onto the world’s largest new MPA? Taking a deeper dive into the issues surrounding MPAs, the Antarctic Treaty System and contemporary ocean policy leads us to understand that the Ross Sea MPA is a sign of a changing narrative in conservation where ocean health is linked to climate change.

In his book The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans, John Hannigan provides a timely interpretation of the changing discourse of oceans; from a place for ‘frontier’ activities to a place for ‘saving.’ In between, we’ve fought for sovereignty claims and worked on best ways to ‘Govern the Abyss.’ We can see several of these discourse changes in the management of Antarctica specifically.

At the height of the Cold War in 1959, the international community agreed to set aside an entire continent for scientific exploration, banning military activity including nuclear weapons. There are 53 parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, which also halted all new sovereignty claims on the frozen continent. This would prohibit any new bases by emerging countries and maintain existing power structures. In a sign of the discourse around oceans management and conservation, the original Antarctic Treaty System included land and ice shelves but not all of the surrounding waters.

In 1991, the Antarctic Treaty System was updated with the Madrid Protocol, which sought to limit adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment by designating it as a  “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” Importantly, it showcased that resource extraction was important issue at the time and prohibited mining; a later addition to the protocol prevented marine pollution and provided provisions for waste management.

Finalized in Australia in October 2016, the Ross Sea MPA has created the world’s largest marine reserve and will enter into force in 2017. The agreement designates 72 percent of the MPA to be ‘no-take’ and only some sections will allow harvesting of tooth-fish and krill for scientific research for the next 35 years. The Ross Sea is home to almost 40 percent of the world’s Adelie penguins, 30 percent of Antarctic petrels and a huge amount of krill which animals like seals and whales rely on for nutrients (and even humans). The agreement was first introduced by the United States and New Zealand in 2011, and they will also negotiate details of implementation including monitoring and assessment plans. Therefore it will be critical for a positive bilateral working relationship to continue.

The Ross Sea MPA is another example for the changing discourse in oceans management, from working on effectively governing territories to harnessing power from multiple groups (from government leaders to nonprofits to celebrities) in order to save and protect oceans no matter how distant from our everyday lives. According to John Kerry, 2016 has been a “landmark year for ocean stewardship” particularly when the Ross Sea MPA’s 1.57m square kilometers is combined with the nearly 4m square kilometers of newly protected ocean area announced at the Our Ocean Conference in September.

The Ross Sea MPA is not controversial and has several benefits for the U.S. First, for areas that are not threatened but are protected, MPAs brings significant scientific value to have a pristine ocean environment available. Second, it is a political opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to environmental principles and contribute to an administration’s legacy. When there are no threats to powerful political or commercial interests, MPAs are more likely to have bipartisan support. Third, it improves the soft power particularly of the U.S. where climate initiatives or environmental protections in the past have been weak.

The Ross Sea MPA is also important because it may set a precedent for high seas MPAs to be negotiated. According to Hannigan (2016), we are now in a discourse of “Saving the Ocean” whereby the primary actors oppose exploitation of ocean resources in favor of full protection; preferably protection is pursued through “zoning the oceans, specifically the establishment of marine reserves and other marine protected areas” (133). Nonprofit and industry groups, marine scientists and government leaders like Palau President Tommy Remengesau have called for 20 percent of the ocean to be protected.

While I agree with marine protected areas and have written about their importance, expanding upon the square kilometers of protected areas for their own sake or simply demonstrating international harmony is not sufficient for creating what is needed, a behavioral shift among consumers or international supply chains. The momentum must continue through bipartisan and multi-stakeholder efforts with work to educate the public about what they can do in their own communities.

I was fortunate to be able to visit Antarctica in 2005 as part of an educational trip with young students and researchers. Albatrosses and other sea birds soared past our ship as we cut through what seemed an endless bounty of icebergs and sea ice. I saw what most people only see on television – killer whales hunting a seal trying to escape capture on a lone ice flow. Once on land, I scooted among the penguins’ trails and visited Halley Research Station run by Great Britain in the Weddell Sea. A sign that not everyone can or should visit the pristine environment, our icebreaker ship rescued a large tourist cruise ship stuck in the ice. I experienced firsthand the serenity and silence of Antarctica and its inability to advocate for itself.  

Ocean conservation is now a welcome part of the discourse on global climate change, part of what I’d like to call Blue Diplomacy. In a 2014 letter to President Obama, the Marine Conservation Institute said “the unprotected ocean is like a debit account where everybody withdraws and nobody deposits. By contrast, marine reserves are like savings accounts that produce interest we can live off of.” (Hannigan 2016, 128) In the absence of the strongest binding commitments and complimentary to the Paris Climate Accord, the Ross Sea MPA provides a relatively easy ‘win’ for scientists and government leaders alike. It is a signal that despite escalating competition for Asia-Pacific territory resources harkening back frontier days, international actors are awakening to the climate-ocean nexus and the interconnectedness of healthy fish stocks and reefs with a healthy climate.  

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