Countries fail to deliver greater protection for the Antarctic despite threats of record low sea-ice and bird flu

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  • Countries remained deadlocked on establishing crucial Antarctic marine protected areas that can reduce harmful impacts from human-related activities. 
  • WWF disappointed by lack of action at Hobart meeting, but welcomes hopeful signs for progress in 2024.

Governments responsible for conserving Antarctic marine life have failed to deliver increased protection at a meeting in Hobart, despite the threats of record low sea-ice and the first cases of bird flu reaching Antarctica.

The 42nd meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) wrapped up late last night with a decision to push to 2024 proposals to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea and East Antarctica, prolonging deadlocked discussions that started in 2010.

The meeting was held following the mass deaths of emperor penguin chicks caused by record low sea-ice, and as news broke that a highly infectious variant of avian flu has reached Antarctica for the first time.

Yet the 26 nations plus the European Union (EU) that make up CCAMLR failed to deliver concrete actions with the urgency required, instead agreeing to make progress toward establishing MPAs at next year’s meeting.

“It’s frustrating that discussions for MPAs have been ongoing for more than a decade and utterly disappointing that CCAMLR has been unable to make significant progress again, particularly following a year of unprecedented and concerning change for Antarctica,” said Emily Grilly, WWF Antarctic Conservation Manager.

“The record low levels of sea-ice and catastrophic breeding failure of emperor penguins should have been an alarm bell for countries to come together, prioritize conservation, and honour their commitment to establish MPAs with significant no-fishing areas.”

Climate change coupled with industrial krill fishing have had negative impacts on wildlife and the marine ecosystem. WWF called on decision-makers to heed these warnings, yet the response remained dictated by short-term national benefit rather than the long-term stability of Antarctica and its dependent wildlife. 

“We call on all nations to put their differences aside and work together to protect this vulnerable region,” added Grilly.

“With the speed of change in Antarctica accelerating, continued inaction is indefensible. It could lead to devastating outcomes for Antarctic wildlife.”

Grilly said the news of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) reaching Bird Island was another reminder of the global connectivity of our ecosystems.

“This is an added pressure the region certainly doesn’t need right now. CCAMLR needs to help reduce pressure on Antarctic ecosystems by establishing high-level protection measures like no-take MPAs,” she said.

“The development and implementation of regulations and protocols to reduce and manage risks, including procedures for surveillance, prevention and response to the introduction and spread of HPAI, are critical.”

Despite the lack of urgency at this year’s meeting, Grilly said there were some positive signs going into 2024.

“We welcome the agreement by all CCAMLR members this year to make progress toward establishing the Antarctic Peninsula MPA, as well as strengthening krill fishing regulations, in 2024,” she said.

“It’s clear that 2024 will be a critical year for CCAMLR to play its part and align with global commitments to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030.

“CCAMLR nations demonstrated their ability to put their differences aside and prioritize conservation in 2016 when it established the Ross Sea region MPA which, at the time, became the world’s largest marine sanctuary. 

“We hope countries can show this type of leadership again at next year’s meeting.”

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