Record low sea-ice, mass deaths of penguin chicks, signals need for greater protection of Antarctica

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Emperor penguins on the sea ice close to Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf.

© Christopher Walton / British Antarctic Survey 

WWF calls for countries to act at Hobart meeting

Following the mass deaths of Emperor penguin chicks caused by record lows in sea ice, WWF is calling on governments to urgently prioritise the conservation of Antarctic wildlife and designate three new marine protected areas when they meet in Hobart next week.

The Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) will consider Antarctica’s changing environment when the 27-member body gathers for its annual meeting from 16-27 October.

Sea-ice in Antarctica shrank to the smallest area on record in February 2023, beating the previous record-low set in 2022.

There have also been record-breaking low levels during Antarctica’s winter this year, continuing a decade-long decline.

The unprecedented drop in sea-ice may indicate Antarctica is shifting to an unstable state, putting species like the emperor penguin at risk of extinction.

The topic will be a priority for the CCAMLR meeting, where members will deliberate over proposals to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea and East Antarctica.

“The sudden decline in sea-ice will have serious consequences both globally and locally for wildlife,” said Emily Grilly, WWF Antarctic Conservation Manager.

“We are already seeing effects of a rapidly changing environment on emperor penguins, Antarctic krill, humpback whales and many other vulnerable species.

“MPAs would limit human activity, particularly fishing, in the critical habitats these species need to recover and develop resilience to a changing environment. We can’t stop all the effects of climate change in the short term, but we can take the pressure off in other ways.”

Solid ice habitats are required by emperor penguin colonies to breed and raise their young.

Emperor penguins in the Bellingshausen Sea experienced total breeding collapse in late 2022, when an estimated 9,000 chicks died due to early ice breakup before they could grow adult waterproof feathers and learn to swim.

Current projections indicate that emperor penguins may be extinct by 2100.

Antarctic krill, small crustaceans that rely on sea-ice habitats and serve as the foundation of the Antarctic food web, have also been affected.

There are reported declines of krill around the Antarctic Peninsula, which is also home to a large-scale industrial krill fishery. In some regions, krill populations are projected to decline by 40% by the end of the century.

Further evidence around the Antarctic Peninsula indicates that chinstrap penguins have declined by 30%; Adelie penguin populations are projected to decline by 30% by 2060; and humpback whales are experiencing reduced pregnancy rates in years following low krill availability.

“The impacts on Antarctica’s iconic wildlife are irrefutable, yet CCAMLR has been deliberating over these proposed MPAs for over a decade,” said Grilly.

CCAMLR is a consensus-based organisation made up of 26 nations, plus the EU and eight of its member states.

“Leaders must honour their commitment to establish a network of MPAs around this sensitive region. We cannot wait any longer,” said Grilly.

“We urge Australia to approach this CCAMLR meeting with the innovation and leadership required to break the ongoing impasse.

“The prioritisation of Antarctic conservation would set a global precedent for the protection of our planet’s most vulnerable ecosystems.”


The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established by international convention in 1982 with the objective of conserving Antarctic marine life. CCAMLR is a consensus-based organization consisting of 27 members, including the EU and eight of its member states. CCAMLR’s mandate includes fisheries management based on an ecosystem approach, the protection of Antarctic nature and the creation of marine protected areas.

In 2009, CCAMLR member countries began to undertake their responsibilities to establish a network of MPAs throughout the Southern Ocean and established the first high seas MPA on the southern shelf of the South Orkney Islands. In 2016, the world’s largest MPA was agreed in the Ross Sea (2.09 million km2).

Currently, there are three proposals for the creation of new MPAs in the Southern Ocean: East Antarctica (0.95 million km2), the Weddell Sea (2.18 million km2), and the Antarctic Peninsula (0.65 million km2).

The protection of these three large areas would safeguard nearly 4 million km2 of Antarctica’s ocean. That is roughly the size of the EU and represents 1% of the global ocean. Together this would secure the largest act of ocean protection in history.

For additional information on CCAMLR, visit:

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