20 November, 2009

A UK proposal for the designation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) covering a large area of the Southern Ocean in the British Antarctic Territory, south of the South Orkney Islands was successful at the recent annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR*). The new South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA encompasses an area just under 94,000 square kilometres (which is more than four times the size of Wales), and will come into force in May 2010. The new MPA will prohibit all fishing activities, as well as waste disposal and discharge from fishing vessels within its boundaries, and will allow for improved coordination of scientific research activities. The South Orkneys MPA will be the world’s first entirely ‘High Seas’ marine protected area.

The MPA will allow scientists to better monitor the effects of human activities and climate change on the Southern Ocean. Dr Susie Grant, one of the BAS scientists involved in the study, says “The MPA includes important sections of an oceanographic feature known as the Weddell Front which marks the northern limit of waters characteristic of the Weddell Sea and the southern limit of the Weddell Scotia Confluence”. She added, “The Weddell Scotia Confluence is a key habitat for Antarctic krill, one of the main species harvested in the Antarctic and a key focus for CCAMLR because of its importance in the southern ocean ecosystem”. Dr Grant went on to say “The MPA also includes important foraging areas for Adélie penguins that breed at the South Orkney Islands, and important submarine shelf areas and seamounts, including areas that have recently been shown to have high biodiversity, particularly in the benthos”.

Dr Phil Trathan, another of the BAS scientists involved in the study, says “The MPA is the first entirely located in the High Seas and has been achieved through a combination of science and international policy”. Dr Trathan added, “The South Orkneys MPA is the first link in a network that will better conserve marine biodiversity in the Antarctic, it will help conserve important ecosystem processes, vulnerable areas, and create reference sites that can be used to make scientific comparisons between fished areas and no-take areas”. Dr Trathan concluded that “such networks will become increasingly important as climate change impacts become progressively more evident in the future”.

* The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) entered into force in 1982. There are currently twenty-five State Members of the Commission, which have fisheries or research interests in the Southern Ocean. The Commission operates as a fisheries management framework for the Southern Ocean, but unlike a conventional Regional Fisheries Management Organisation, CCAMLR is an intrinsic part of the Antarctic Treaty System. It therefore has wider conservation responsibilities for the Southern Ocean and the wider Antarctic ecosystem (i.e. it looks at the impact of fishing on the whole food-chain).