Australia’s proposal for an area of the Southern Ocean to be declared a vulnerable marine ecosystem has been adopted by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

In a major International Polar Year project, an Australian-led expedition to waters off East Antarctica returned earlier this year with a vast array of specimens, among them several new species.

The Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census (CEAMARC) uncovered a remarkably rich, colourful and complex range of life — including glass-like animals known as tunicates, corals, sponges huge sea worms, giant crustaceans and sea spiders the size of dinner plates — in this previously unexplored region.

Now two areas, comprising around 400 square kilometres each, have been recognised as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs) and placed on a register for protection.

Dr Tony Press, leader of the Australian delegation and Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, says the agreement is a marvellous outcome for this unique Antarctic marine environment.

“But it goes further than that. For the first time, CCAMLR has adopted a new Conservation Measure which provides for protection of VMEs should evidence be found during fishing operations.

“This is the first such measure introduced by the Commission and will provide interim protection while longer-term strategies are developed and implemented.”

Dr Press said that adoption of the measure showed the value of Australia’s Antarctic scientific research and its contribution to policy setting when recognising the importance of protecting Antarctic ecosystems for future generations.

CCAMLR ends today after two weeks, hosting around 200 delegates from Antarctic Treaty nations, at its international headquarters in Hobart.