Southern Ocean Marine Protected Areas

Map of Antarctica showing the location of the proposed Marine Protected Areas
A map showing the location of the proposed Marine Protected Areas. (Map: Australian Antarctic Division Multimedia Unit and Data Centre)

In 2005 Members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) committed to establishing marine protected areas as a means of ensuring the long-term conservation and sustainable use of marine environments - principles that underpin CCAMLR's core objective. The adoption of a system of seven marine protected areas off the East Antarctic coast would be a significant step towards achieving this goal.

In July this year a Special Meeting of CCAMLR will discuss the establishment of one of the world’s largest systems of marine protected areas – the East Antarctic Representative System of Marine Protected Areas.

The proposal was initially developed in 2010 using 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 (CCAMLR) at its 2011 meeting as being based on the best scientific evidence available. In 2012, Australia, France and the European Union jointly proposed the establishment of a system of marine protected areas in East Antarctica. CCAMLR agreed to convene a Special Meeting specifically to discuss proposals for marine protected areas, including this proposal and a Ross Sea marine protected area proposal by New Zealand and the USA.

The East Antarctic Marine Protected Areas aim to conserve representative areas of biodiversity for future generations and provide critical reference areas for understanding the effects of fishing and the consequences of climate change in the Southern Ocean. The proposal 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 seven areas aim to conserve examples of open ocean and seabed biodiversity in East Antarctic waters, including important ecological processes such as nursery areas for toothfish and krill, and foraging areas for marine mammals and penguins.

Among the areas' attributes are:

The Gunnerus area has unique continental ridge and seamount features and 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 contains unique, endemic molluscs – relations of snails and clams found only in the area. It also has important seafloor features, including the shelf, canyon and slope, which are likely to support distinct seafloor ecosystems.

The MacRobertson area contains highly productive coastal and oceanic food webs, where marine mammals and Adélie and emperor penguins forage during the summer. It also includes a diverse set of seafloor ecosystems, including on the shelf, slope and seamounts.

The Prydz area has a number of unique features including that it contains the southern-most waters in the East Antarctic region, with Prydz Bay extending to 69° south. It is also considered to be an important nursery area for Antarctic krill and toothfish.

The Drygalski area has a diverse sea floor environment, including canyons and ice shelves. It covers coastal and oceanic food webs and important foraging areas for Adélie and emperor penguins, marine mammals and flying seabirds.

The Wilkes area is the only area that is representative of the biodiversity that inhabits shelf, canyon and slope ecosystems in the region and offers a reference area for evaluating the effects of bottom fishing in adjacent areas.

The D’Urville Sea-Mertz area is a site of Antarctic Bottom Water formation and is important for our understanding of climate change. It contains a diverse set of seafloor habitats, a nursery area for Antarctic silverfish and the foraging ranges of marine mammals and seabirds. The area also contains CCAMLR-registered vulnerable marine ecosystems.

As the 25 Members of CCAMLR meet in Bremerhaven, Germany this year, the Australian delegation, led by the Australian Antarctic Division’s Director, Dr Tony Fleming, will be working hard to see to establishment of the East Antarctic Representative System of Marine Protected Areas and will be calling on CCAMLR Members to act now to protect these unique and significant marine ecosystems.

Rhonda Bartley and Eloise Carr
Territories, Environment and Treaties,
Australian Antarctic Division