Vulnerable marine ecosystems in Antarctica

At its annual meeting in October, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) adopted a proposal by Australia to declare two areas of the Southern Ocean as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs). The areas, each comprising around 400 square kilometres, have a high diversity of marine life, in particular habitat-forming hydrocorals and sponges. They are also home to species previously unknown to science. This declaration ensures that these unique areas are not damaged by indiscriminate fishing practices.

Located in a previously unexplored region, the areas were identified in early 2008 during the Australian-led expedition of the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census (CEAMARC), a major International Polar Year project, and part of the Census of Antarctic Marine Life.

The Commission also adopted a new conservation measure for the protection of VMEs should they be encountered during fishing operations. The new measure requires fishing vessels to cease fishing operations if evidence of a VME is discovered. No further fishing in the risk area will be permitted until appropriate management actions are determined by the CCAMLR Scientific Committee. This interim protection will ensure the protection of VMEs until longer-term conservation strategies are developed and implemented.

The declaration of the two VMEs and the adoption of the new conservation measure highlight the importance of Australia’s Antarctic scientific research in supporting policy to protect Antarctic ecosystems for future generations.

During the two week meeting the Commission also adopted measures including:

  • prohibiting fishing in waters shallower than 550m for all CCAMLR waters, to protect sensitive benthic habitat;
  • making funds available for capacity training in developing states to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing for toothfish;
  • improving the CCAMLR Scheme of International Scientific Observation; and,
  • refining the research guidelines to allow a greater proportion of research proposals to be reviewed by the CCAMLR Scientific Committee.

This year’s meeting also marked the final CCAMLR meeting for Dr Tony Press, who has made a significant contribution to CCAMLR as head of the Australian Delegation at the past 11 meetings. Dr Press has been appointed the new Chief Executive Officer of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, and will take up his post in early 2009.


Antarctic Territories, Environment and Policy, AAD