The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has committed to establishing a representative system of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR has two existing MPAs, one on the South Orkney Islands southern shelf (established in 2009), and the other in the Ross Sea region (established in 2016).

Australia and the European Union are proposing an East Antarctic Marine Protected Area to contribute to a representative system of Antarctic MPAs.

The proposed East Antarctic MPA would conserve examples of biodiversity in the high latitudes of the Indian sector of the Southern Ocean. The area contains distinctive deep water flora and fauna and supports important ecosystem roles, such as feeding areas for marine mammals, penguins and other seabirds. The proposed MPA would also provide scientific reference zones to assist with 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 areas of each.

The East Antarctic MPA proposal includes a MPA Management Plan and identifies priorities for a Research and Monitoring Plan.

Key features of the MPA

The East Antarctic MPA proposal was developed in 2010 using the principles of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness and has been endorsed and confirmed by CCAMLR’s Scientific Committee on three occasions 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.

Objectives of the proposed MPAs

The proposed East Antarctic MPA aims to protect representative areas of open ocean and seabed biodiversity in East Antarctica. It comprises the following areas:

The MacRobertson area is representative of highly productive coastal and oceanic food webs in the West Kerguelen Sub-province, where marine mammals and birds 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 Drygalski area is important for its diverse sea floor environment on the shelf and slope, particularly in relation to canyons and ice shelves. It is representative of the coastal food web adjacent to the ice shelves and the greater oceanic food web adjacent to the Greater Kerguelen Plateau within the East Kerguelan Sub-province. This is the only representation of this type of food web in the proposed MPA. It also includes important foraging areas for Adélie and Emperor penguins, marine mammals and other seabirds.

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. It also provides representative examples of other values within the Wilkes Sub-province, including 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 zones

The East Antarctic MPA proposal provides important scientific reference zones 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.

The area contains 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 size of the MPA is determined by the important summer foraging requirements of marine mammals, Adélie and Emperor penguins, and other seabirds during critical breeding periods and by its value for monitoring large scale ecosystem processes.

A multiple use MPA

The proposal allows for multiple uses within the MPA. This means that activities, including fishing, will be allowed to take place so long as such activities will not adversely impact on the objectives of the MPA.

MPAs often use zoning to delineate where different activities may occur. The East Antarctic MPA relies on multiple-use-zoning primarily articulated through existing CCAMLR conservation measures. Such conservation measures define where and how activities such as fishing and research may occur throughout the CCAMLR Area. The East Antarctic MPA proposal includes provisions to guide the application of existing conservation measures and the assessment of any impacts within the MPA. It also includes additional zoning provisions.

Additional protection to innershelf depressions and embayments

The proposal extends an existing prohibition on exploratory fishing in depths less than 550m to include all areas landward of the outer 550m bathymetric contour, including areas that are deeper than 550m in innershelf depressions and embayments. This seeks to conserve areas considered to be key continental shelf ecosystems.

A krill no-take zone

A prohibition on fishing for krill in the D'Urville Sea-Mertz area is proposed to monitor important environmental changes in this area since 2010.

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 (Conservation Measure 91–05) 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.

The East Antarctic MPA has been under consideration by the Commission since 2012. The next opportunity to progress the East Antarctic MPA proposal will be at the annual meeting of CCAMLR in Hobart in October.