For the next 35 years, the Ross Sea in Antarctica will be protected from commercial fishing, a move that offers hope to environmentalists and a template for achieving multilateral conservation.
The Ross Sea, at 600,000 square miles, comprises 2% of the Southern Ocean, but it is nonetheless the largest reserve in the world.
The agreement was reached after several years of effort and is supported by 24 nations and the European Union. Last year, Russia derailed negotiations, but this year it came on board. The country’s president Vladimir Putin designated 2017 the Year of Ecology, and this is a sign that the title is more than window dressing.
"Russia has a proud history of exploration and science in Antarctica,” said Sergei Ivanov, President Putin's Special Representative for Ecology. “In this time of political turbulence in so many parts of the world, we are pleased to be part of this collaborative international effort to safeguard the Ross Sea.”
China was also skeptical of the length of the agreement, but it ultimately supported the agenda.
Currently, international waters are largely lawless and this has led to hazardous levels of exploitation.
But many people involved in are optimistic that the Ross Sea deal sets an important precedent that will lead to more action.
The UN, for instance, wants to develop a marine biodiversity treaty that would formally enshrine positive stewardship of the world’s oceans.
In fact, there has been a rise in marine conservation in the past decade as the risks facing the world’s oceans are better understood.
Overfishing, pollution, ocean acidification from climate change, rising temperatures, and coral bleaching are some of the most grave problems facing marine life.
The Ross Sea has significant biological diversity and is especially vulnerable as human exploration of the region increases.
There are fears that as the Antarctic melts, opening up waters that had previously been untraversable, overfishing and other resource exploitation will begin. There is particular concern that the krill population, which forms the base of many animal diets, will be overharvested leading to a potential collapse of the ecosystem there. Krill is also being threatened by climate change — as the waters warm and become more acidic, they have a harder time creating shells.