The 2012 CCAMLR meeting has been and gone and while the inability to reach consensus on marine protection in the Ross Sea was disheartening in one respect, in another it was a relief. The proposal that New Zealand took to Hobart, although being a good first step, never had the conservation value the Ross Sea really deserves. As the most pristine marine ecosystem on Earth we need a proposal that protects the intact qualities of the ecosystem, and what was put forward falls well short.
I’ve been to CCAMLR several times and when you see the international politics playing out, you understand why strong alliances are vital. The NZ/US alliance promised to be a powerful one, but we blew it. Through a set of baffling decisions, instead of sitting beside our great ally – we sat opposite, battling them on behalf of the NZ fishing industry and some cash strapped cabinet ministers.
The extent of support shown to the industry was evident in an area of contention in the south of the Ross Sea referred to as the wedge (See diagram). When the US tried to protect this area in order to have a reference to monitor the effects of fishing, NZ dug in its heels on the grounds that closing the area would concentrate fishing effort and reduce the options the fishing industry had during years with a lot of ice. We wasted a valuable week that would have been far better spent collectively lobbying the traditional opponents to marine protection – Russia, China, Korea, Japan.
The proposal that eventually found its way to CCAMLR’s table effectively protected our fishing interests as much as it protected the ecosystem. The richest and most productive areas of the Ross Sea remained open for business. Carolyn Schwalger, head of the New Zealand delegation, told us the proposal was based on science. What she didn’t say was that it was based on science that backs their view. Wherever you stand in the spectrum of this debate, you will find science to justify your position.
Science also tells us that removing 50% of a top predator from an almost pristine marine ecosystem will destroy the natural balance of that ecosystem. Science tells us that 80% of the worlds oceans have been over exploited, 90% of the large fish have gone. You would have to be a fool to ignore the viewpoint of the 500 plus scientists (including world leading, fishery, marine and Antarctic experts) who say that the Ross Sea ecosystem needs to be protected. New Zealand’s science is primarily focused on justifying a ‘sustainable’ fishery but conserving the Ross Sea requires a much broader ecological framework than that.
The decision to fish or not fish the Ross Sea is a decision based on a lot more than science: it also involves economics, politics and values – and the latter needs to play a bigger part in this process. It is time for CCAMLR to take guidance from the values under which it was originally formed – to conserve Antarctica’s Marine Living Resources. It is time for the New Zealand Government to take responsibility for its role in opening up this fishery and to take guidance from the values of the clean green public it represents. New Zealand can help provide CCAMLR with the leadership required to steer this organization towards doing what is morally right in the Ross Sea.
At a recent public debate on the Last Ocean at Christchurch’s Antarctic Festival IceFest, Dr Denzil Miller, executive secretary of CCAMLR from 2002 – 2012, told us that bold moves make an impact in the CCAMLR environment. NZ could boldly forfeit the annual $20 -30 million and withdraw our fishing fleet from the Ross Sea. The reason to do this is simple: if we lose life in our oceans we lose life itself and the Ross Sea is our last healthy wild ocean. So we either make bold moves or we continue with the race for the Ross Sea resources, a similar race that has lead to the demise of much of our planet already. Antarctica is the exception – to date it has avoided this tragedy of the commons through its pioneering Treaty, and it’s with great shame that New Zealand is selling out Antarctica’s oceans so easily.
The long-term values for protecting the entire Ross Sea are profound. Creating a “Serengeti of the South” would set aside one of the last bastions of the natural world for future generations – a place to celebrate and share, whether it be through science, research, education or tourism. Those who know the juncture at which we sit, realize that this is our one big chance to properly protect the Ross Sea, and this is our opportunity to show the world that New Zealanders are who we actually say we are.
The fact that CCAMLR couldn’t reach consensus in this latest meeting doesn’t mean the organization is not committed to marine protection. A number of countries participating expressed strong disappointment at the failure to make progress and for only the second time in its history, CCAMLR has agreed to hold a special intercessional meeting in Germany in July 2013 to try to find resolution. This self-imposed deadline puts pressure on the organization to come up with a result. It also gives us six months to build on the campaign and to continue to lobby New Zealand and US Governments to come up with stronger proposals for protection of the Ross Sea.
One thing is for certain, there are now a lot more people who know what CCAMLR stands for and where the Ross Sea is. We need to monitor what is going on in the Ross Sea fishery and we need to keep talking about it. Write to your papers, lobby your politicians – and let CCAMLR know that in July 2013 all eyes will be turning to Germany. The world will be watching.