17 Jul 2013

Bid for marine sanctuaries blocked

6:43 pm on 17 July 2013

New Zealand's attempt to turn Antarctica's Ross Sea into the world's largest marine protected area has been rejected for a second time.

At a meeting in Germany, Russia blocked a bid by Western countries to create the world's largest ocean sanctuary off Antarctica.

The waters around Antarctica are home to some 16,000 known species.

The waters around Antarctica are home to some 16,000 known species. Photo: RNZ

A deal was being discussed at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which includes 24 nations and the European Union.

One proposal, from New Zealand and the United States, was to protect 2.2 million square kilometres of the Ross Sea, keeping 1.6 million square kilometres of that free from fishing. Another, backed by Australia, France and the EU, was for a massive area off East Antarctica on the Indian Ocean side.

The deal needed unanimous support to go ahead and a vote was abandoned on Tuesday after Russia made it clear it would not support the proposals.

Radio New Zealand has been told New Zealand negotiators made it clear to other countries it would continue to fight for the Ross Sea sanctuary.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said he is deeply disappointed that the protected area could not be created. He said he knew it was a big challenge, but New Zealand remained hopeful that it would one day be established.

Countries 'blindsided' by move

Environmental organisations at the talks said the Russian representative questioned the legal right of the meeting to declare such a haven.

Antarctic Ocean Alliance spokesman Geoff Keey told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme delegates from all the other countries were blindsided by the move.

"(Russia) wanted this special meeting to look at the science so that people could then agree on marine reserve proposals and then half way through the meeting they came up with what seems to be a load of nonsense as a way of torpedoing the whole thing."

Andrea Kavanagh, in charge of the Southern Ocean Sanctuaries campaign at the US green group Pew Environment, said Russia had refused to negotiate, saying simply that it questioned the legal status of CCAMLR to declare such zones.

Mr Kavanagh said many delegates had been stunned and dismayed at the setback, given the effort in time and money to attend a meeting that had been requested by Russia itself, ostensibly to address questions of science.

Gillian Wratt, the head of Antarctica New Zealand from 1992-2002, said she wasn't surprised by Russia's stance, as they have fishing interests in the area. She urged the New Zealand Government to not cave in and weaken the protection plan.

The World Wide Fund for Nature's New Zealand spokesperson, Bob Zuur, was at the meeting in Germany and said Russia undermined other nations.

"There was first absolute surprise and complete disappointment that there had been good faith discussions held with the Russian delegation over the last six months and this issue has never arisen. There have been lots of talks about the science, but these fundamental legal issues that were raised just 24 hours ago were never put on the table."

Mr Zuur still holds out hope that the area could be established in the next round of talks in Australia later this year.

Restrictions 'too onerous'

The parties met in Australia in October 2012, but failed to reach a deal because of opposition by China and Russia, supported by Ukraine, which said restrictions on fishing were too onerous.

As a result, they agreed to an exceptional meeting in July this year. It was only the second time that the members of the CCAMLR - a 31-year-old treaty tasked with overseeing conservation and sustainable exploitation of the Southern Ocean - had met outside the annual gathering, AFP reports.

The fate of the proposed marine sanctuaries now lies in the next annual meeting of CCAMLR in Hobart, from 23 October to 1 November.

The waters around the Antarctica are home to some 16,000 known species, including whales, seals, albatrosses and penguins, as well as unique species of fish, sponges and worms that are bioluminescent or produce their own natural anti-freeze to survive in the region's chilly waters.

They are also rich in nutrients, whose influence spreads far beyond Antarctica thanks to the powerful current that swirls around the continent.