A proposal for a representative system of Marine Protected Areas in the East Antarctic planning domain

Map of Antarctica with marine protected areas marked out in lines
Location of the proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
Graphic of the ridge with the line of the MPA overlaid.CEAMARCDiagram illustrating the direction in which the currents flow.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is currently considering the adoption of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean. There are two proposals before the Commission – a proposal for a representative system of MPAs in the East Antarctic put forward by Australia, France and the European Union and a proposal for an MPA in the Ross Sea Region put forward by New Zealand and the United States.

The proposed East Antarctic MPA would conserve representative areas of biodiversity in the high latitudes of the Indian sector of the Southern Ocean. The areas contain distinctive deep water flora and fauna and support important ecosystem roles, such as feeding areas for marine mammals, penguins and other seabirds. The proposed MPA would also provide reference areas for understanding the effects of fishing outside the MPAs as well as the consequences of climate change on Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems.

There are many different biogeographic regions in the Southern Ocean and MPAs will play a significant role in conserving representative portions of each.

The original East Antarctic MPA proposal recommended seven areas for declaration as MPAs – each one with distinct biogeographic values. It provides for comprehensive management, research and monitoring plans for managing multiple uses, including fishing, within the MPAs and for refining the system in the future. The proposal is jointly sponsored by Australia, France and the European Union.

What is the foundation for the system of MPAs?

The East Antarctic MPAs were developed in 2010 using the principles of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness and were endorsed by the Scientific Committee of CCAMLR at both the 2011 annual meeting and at the Special Meeting of the Scientific Committee in 2013 as containing the best scientific evidence available.

  • Comprehensiveness requires that the combined areas must be of sufficient size to encompass all types of ecosystems, particularly those from ecologically distinct provinces.
  • Adequacy concerns the size and location of areas required to sustain the biodiversity inside the MPAs, as well as providing for resilience and adaptation to climate change impacts.
  • Representativeness ensures that all biodiversity is represented and conserved in the MPA system.

The seven proposed areas combined are representative of the East Antarctic planning domain’s biodiversity, and should be adequate to sustain the represented biodiversity. These areas host important ecological processes, such as nursery areas for toothfish and krill, and foraging areas for marine mammals and penguins, and may be vulnerable to disturbance. Recognising that a multitude of processes including climate change have impacts on the marine environment, three of the seven areas are proposed as scientific reference areas.

Objectives of the proposed MPAs

The seven proposed areas aim to protect representative areas of open ocean and seabed biodiversity in East Antarctica.

The Gunnerus area is proposed for its unique continental ridge and seamount features, along with a representation of biodiversity related to the shelf, canyon and slope seafloor ecosystems. These seafloor features are thought to support a greater diversity of marine life than surrounding habitats.

The Enderby area is proposed as the only representation of the unique endemic molluscs – relations of snails and clams – in the molluscan biogeographic province of ‘East Antarctic Enderby Land’. Enderby Land also has important seafloor features such as the shelf, canyon and slope that are likely to support distinct seafloor ecosystems.

The MacRobertson area is representative of highly productive coastal and oceanic food webs, where marine mammals and Adélie and Emperor penguins forage during the summer. This area also includes a diverse set of seafloor ecosystems on the shelf, slope and seamounts representing the Central Indian Province. The size of the area has been determined by Adélie penguin foraging requirements, particularly during the critical breeding period. It also encompasses the foraging area of local Emperor penguin colonies.

The Prydz area is proposed for a number of unique features, including that it is the southern most embayment in the East Antarctic region and it has unique seafloor values. It is also considered to be an important nursery area for Antarctic krill and toothfish.

The Drygalski area is important for its diverse sea floor environment on the shelf and slope, particularly in relation to canyons and ice shelves. It covers the coastal food web adjacent to the ice shelves as well as the greater oceanic food web, including adjacent to the Greater Kerguelen Plateau, which is the only representation of this type of food web in the proposed MPAs, including important foraging areas for Adélie and Emperor penguins, marine mammals and other seabirds.

The Wilkes area represents the unique seafloor of the Wilkes Sub province. It is the only area that is representative of the biodiversity that inhabits shelf, canyon and slope ecosystems in this region. As well as taking account of the potential biodiversity differences in the area, the Wilkes MPA is proposed to provide some replication of environmental types across the breadth of the province. It can be used as a reference area for evaluating the effects of bottom fishing in adjacent areas.

The D’Urville Sea-Mertz area is an important area for our understanding of climate change, as a site of Antarctic Bottom Water formation, which drives global ocean circulation and traps greenhouse gases. Due to this process, the area supports a range of habitats not found anywhere else. Its seafloor values include a diverse set of habitats on the shelf and slope, particularly in relation to canyons, ice shelves and the Mertz Polynya. Its other values include coastal and oceanic food webs, a nursery area for Antarctic silverfish, and the foraging ranges of marine mammals and birds, such as Adélie and Emperor penguins. This area also has registered CCAMLR vulnerable marine ecosystems.

Scientific reference areas

The D’Urville Sea-Mertz, Drygalski and MacRobertson MPAs provide important scientific reference areas for measuring the natural variability and long term changes in Antarctic marine living resources and ecosystems, essential for achieving sustainable fisheries and for estimating the long-term conservation requirements of the region.

They are the sites of long term monitoring of marine mammals, seabirds and the formation of Antarctic Bottom Water, as well as areas important for understanding climate change impacts on Southern Ocean ecosystems and processes without interference. The larger size of these areas is determined by the important summer foraging requirements of marine mammals, Adélie and Emperor penguins, and other seabirds during critical breeding periods and by their value for monitoring large scale ecosystem processes.

Multiple use of MPAs

The proposal allows for the multiple use of MPAs. This means that activities, including fishing, will be allowed to take place within an MPA so long as such activity will not adversely impact on the conservation or scientific objectives of that MPA. The proposal includes provisions to guide the application of other CCAMLR conservation measures to the East Antarctic MPA.

Consideration of the proposal

CCAMLR made a commitment to meet the World Summit on Sustainable Development target to establish a representative system of MPAs by 2012. In 2011 CCAMLR adopted a framework for establishing MPAs in the form of a conservation measure and, in doing so, the Commission noted that the adoption of this conservation measure confirmed CCAMLR's commitment to create a representative system of MPAs in the CCAMLR Area.

Whilst the Commission has not yet been able to achieve consensus on the East Antarctic or Ross Sea Region MPA proposals, the Commission has recognised the importance of MPAs. The next opportunity to progress the East Antarctic MPA proposal will be at the annual meeting of CCAMLR in Hobart in October 2014.



East Antarctic Marine Protected Areas

Video transcript

The icy waters of the Southern Ocean off East Antarctica support some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the world. Marine mammals, penguins and seabirds frequent the area to gorge on the abundant food supplies.  It’s also the breeding area for key species of fish and Antarctic krill.

The critical importance of this area for the overall health of our oceans is now being recognised through a joint push from Australia, France and the European Union to establish a system of Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs in East Antarctica. The East Antarctic Marine Protected Area proposal aims to conserve seven regions of open ocean and seabed biodiversity.

This representative system will provide reference areas for understanding the effects of fishing, as well as the consequences of climate change on Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems.

An important feature of the MPA proposal is that it is based on the principle of ‘multiple-use’. This allows activities, such as fishing, that will not affect the MPAs achieving their conservation and scientific objectives. The proposal was initially developed in 2010 using extensive scientific evidence and the principles of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness.

It was endorsed by the scientific committee of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, at its 2011 meeting as being based on the best scientific evidence available. Whilst a consensus on establishing the MPAs was not achieved at CCAMLR’s annual meeting last year, the importance of MPAs was recognised when member countries agreed to hold a Special Meeting in Germany in July 2013.

The seven Southern Ocean Marine Protected Areas covered in this proposal are in the high latitudes of the Indian Ocean sector. The regions represent unique continental ridge and seamount features; distinct endemic molluscs; highly productive coastal and oceanic food webs and foraging areas for marine mammals and Adélie and Emperor penguins; important nursery areas for Antarctic krill and toothfish; diverse sea floor environments on the shelf and slope, particularly in relation to canyons and ice shelves; areas representing important shelf, canyon and slope biodiversity; and areas important for our understanding of climate change such as sites where Antarctic Bottom Water forms.

The MPAs will provide vital insights into the impacts of climate change and human activities, on these unique and ecologically significant regions. MPAs provide one of the most effective means of ensuring the long term conservation and sustainable use of marine environments – principles that underpin CCAMLR’s core objective.

It is now up to member countries to ensure the protection of the unique and fragile ecosystems of the Southern Ocean now and into the future.

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This page was last updated on 21 November 2013.