Vast 1.8m sq km fishing-free zone would protect species, such as penguins, leopard seals and whales, and help mitigate the effects of climate change
A global campaign is being launched to turn a huge tract of the seas around the Antarctic into the world’s biggest sanctuary, protecting wildlife and helping the fight against climate change.
The huge 1.8m sq km reserve – five times the size of Germany – would ban all fishing in a vast area of the Weddell Sea and around the Antarctic Peninsula, safeguarding species including penguins, killer whales, leopard seals and blue whales.
The idea was originally put forward by the EU and is being backed by a new Greenpeace campaign to be launched on Monday. The proposal already has the support of several countries – including the UK – and will go before a conference of the Antarctic nations in October.
Will McCallum, of Greenpeace’s new Protect the Antarctic campaign, said: “The next few years are absolutely essential for the future of our oceans and we are in desperate need for governments to come together and do what is best for these amazing ecosystems.”
He said a decision in 2016 to create a smaller sanctuary around the Ross Sea in the Antarctic proved global cooperation to protect the oceans is possible.
“Now we want to go one better and create the world’s largest protected area. We want to create that momentum that says this is not just possible, it is inevitable if we are to protect the wildlife that call the ocean home and crucially help mitigate the worst effects of climate change.”
The sanctuary would stop industrial-scale krill fishing in the area, which scientists say is decimating key food that many larger animals – from penguins to whales – rely on.
Norway, China, South Korea and Russia are big players in the krill fishing industry and campaigners say the success of the proposal will depend on persuading those countries to back it.
McCallum said: “World leaders shouldn’t allow an ocean wilderness to be exploited by a handful of companies. In the 1980s it took a global movement to protect the Antarctic’s land. Now we need to protect its oceans.”
Greenpeace are setting off on a three-month expedition of the Antarctic this week and say a quarter of a million people around the world are already signed up to support the idea.
24 national governments and the EU are members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources [CCAMLR], which is responsible for the conservation of Antarctic waters. It will decide on the new sanctuary proposal at a conference in Australia in October.
Julian Gutt from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, which put forward the original proposal, said it would be an important moment in the fight to create a sustainable global ocean system.
“This will bring huge benefits in protecting this amazing ecosystem, in preserving the biodiversity and ecosystem functions of the ocean and in the wider fight against climate change.”
The seas around Antarctica are some of the most important in the world with a huge diversity of species. If successful, campaigners hope the sanctuary will build momentum towards a UN ambition to create a network of marine protected areas covering international waters.
Experts say that, as well as protecting wildlife by allowing ecosystems to recover in and around the Antarctic, the ocean sanctuary would provide global benefits, with recovering fish populations spreading around the world, encouraging vital biodiversity and providing food security for billions of people.
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York, said the sanctuary would also play a key role in tackling climate change – soaking up huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“The Antarctic is very important in locking away carbon in deep-sea sediments. There is also a very rapid rate of sinking there – it has some of the coldest waters in the world … and this sinking is one of the great pumps of the global ocean system.”
He added that the new sanctuary would be an important step to preserving a sustainable global oceans system.
“The Antarctic is a massively important area and you mess with it at your peril.”