The Last Great Wilderness Area Is Finally Being Protected

By Maddie Stone on at

In a rare international collaboration, twenty four countries and the European Union have unanimously agreed to establish the largest marine sanctuary in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, a region which conservationists have called “the last great wilderness on Earth” and “a polar garden of Eden.”

The decision was reached today at an international meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) held in Hobart, Australia. At 600,000 square miles, the new Ross Sea sanctuary will become the biggest protected area on land or sea, and the very first large-scale marine protected area on the high seas, according to the UN.

It is being hailed a major, major victory for conservation.

“This decision represents an almost unprecedented level of international cooperation regarding a large marine ecosystem comprising important benthic and pelagic habitats,” CCAMLR Executive Secretary Andrew Wright said in a statement.

The Ross Sea, located in the icy Southern Ocean due south of New Zealand, is one of the most pristine marine environments left on the Earth, home to orca whales, Adélie penguins and emperor penguins, as well as a cadre of species found nowhere else. Seventy two percent of the new sanctuary will be a “no take zone,” where all fishing is prohibited, while other areas will allow “some harvesting of fish and krill for scientific research,” according to the CCAMLR.

Importantly, areas that are closed to fishing will serve as a scientific baseline, against which commercially fished waters can be compared. In this way, the reserve will serve as a “living laboratory,” that helps biologists to understand ecological changes taking place across the world due to rampant commercial fishing.

The reserve was established after years of negotiations, due in no small part to the efforts of one Lewis Pugh, a UN Environment ‘Patron of the Oceans’ and endurance swimmer who’s taken a handful of highly-publicised dips along the Ross Sea’s glacial shorelines wearing nothing but swimming trunks. You’ve got to admire the dedication of a guy who’ll happily undergo bodily torture to convince the rest of us Antarctica is a great place, too. Even Putin, one of the long time holdouts on the deal, appears to have been impressed.

The new marine sanctuary goes into effect in December 2017. [NPR]