Hope for the Ross Sea

Jordan Cooper (Last Ocean Intern)

Jordan Cooper, a journalism intern with the Last Ocean in the United States, is writing a feature story on the amazing adaptations of Ross Sea animals. Here he shares a snippet of what he has learned and his hope for the Ross Sea. Jordan is currently a freelance writer. 

Before beginning my internship at the Last Ocean Project, I possessed no knowledge of the Ross Sea or the incredible creatures carving out their niches in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.  I had never heard of a Weddell seal (the incredible diving mammal that can plummet to depths that could potentially crush a nuclear submarine), and I had no idea that the study of Emperor Penguins could lead to better treatment for heart attack and stroke victims.  I wasn’t at all aware that toothfish from Antarctica were being caught on an industrial scale and marketed around the world as Chilean sea bass, or that the last intact marine ecosystem on the planet was facing a dire threat from humans.

Weddell Seal in the Ross Sea (photo by John B. Weller). Weddell Seals can dive to depths that could potentially crush a nuclear submarine!

But now that I am aware of these facts and more, I understand why it is so critical that we preserve this unique and remarkable place for as long as we humans inhabit the Earth.  The Ross Sea is known as a high seas gem – an isolated area of pristine open water that has not been heavily exploited.  Not only is it extraordinarily beautiful, it is also one of the last untamed wilderness areas on the planet, where most creatures still exist in their natural state, free from human interference.

Even so, longlining for toothfish in the Ross Sea and the waters surrounding Antarctica has been going on since the 1970’s and still continues today.  It’s important to remember that the fish coming from Antarctica are not being harvested in order to feed the hungry; instead they are sold to fine restaurants in the West and Asia for up to $30 per pound.  And some recent signs suggest that toothfish are now becoming more scarce, as are certain types of killer whales that depend on them for prey.  A collapse in the toothfish population would have far-reaching and possibly devastating consequences for the ecosystem as a whole because toothfish serve as a staple in the diet of many top predators in the region.

Weddell Seal and Antarctic toothfish (photo by Jessica Meir).

It’s still not too late to save the Ross Sea, but if we don’t act now it may soon be.  The effects of climate change will likely severly impact many species indigenous to the region because of their interdependence with the sea ice.  Compounding this uncertainty by decimating a critical food source could doom many of the larger predators, whose presences are in part what makes the Ross Sea ecosystem so special and unique.

It’s time for the human species to prove that we are capable of exercising a measure of restraint.  It is now up to us to ensure that the Emperor Penguin and the Weddel seal do not go the way of the American bison or the polar bear.  The Ross Sea is a priceless and irreplaceable natural wonder, and to plunder it for short-term gain seems akin to looting a cherished painting or sculpture and then selling the materials as scrap.  What a tragic end this would be for a place so ancient, so pure, and so wild.

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