History was made on October 30th with the designation of the first ever large-scale marine protected area in the high seas. The Ross Sea, known as the “Last Ocean” because of its status as the most pristine shallow sea left on earth, is now the world’s largest marine protected area. The designation, agreed upon by the 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), safeguards 1.55 million km2 and protects populations of ecologically important species such as Weddell seals, Antarctic toothfish, and a unique type of killer whale. This protected status bans commercial fishing across roughly three-quarters of that area, with a small amount of fishing for research purposes allowed throughout the protected area. The designation is groundbreaking not only because of the size of the reserve, but because it is the culmination of years of difficult international negotiations to protect previously unregulated waters on the high seas.
This decision follows years of hard work by participating governments and NGO’s, including Greenpeace and Antarctic Ocean Alliance, two organizations supported with funds provided through the discretionary grants program of The Overbrook Foundation. Conservationists and nonprofits hope this designation will serve as a precedent for many other significant victories for ocean protection. Two additional proposals for marine protected areas in East Antarctic waters and the Weddell Sea are still being discussed, and those involved in the designation of the Ross Sea area are confident these areas will be protected in the coming years. The agreement will take effect in December 2017, and will last an initial 35 years for most of the reserve.