A vote on Tuesday on whether to declare a marine protection area over an Antarctic body of water seven times the size of Germany is hanging in the balance due to Russian and Ukrainian fishing interests, the head of a European delegation to the talks has told EurActiv.
Representatives of 25 countries are in the German city of Bremerhaven to discuss a proposal backed by the EU, US and New Zealand for a fishing ban in the Ross Sea, a deep bay in the Southern Antarctic.
The Ross Sea is one of the most intact – and fragile – marine ecosystems on Earth, which stretches for 2.6 million square kilometres. The nearest land is New Zealand and Australia.
But hopes of a deal are fading, due to nominal objections raised by a blocking minority about the scientific basis for the ‘protected area’ designation.
“Russia and Ukraine have fishing interests and are a little bit afraid that these could be compromised in some way,” said Walter Dubner, who heads the German team at the talks held by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
“It is all about fishing,” Dubner added, speaking on 15 July. “That is their major concern.”
Because of the Commission’s consensus model for decision-taking, a veto by just one country can stop a proposal being adopted.
Terje Løbach, the CCAMLR’s chair, told a press conference in Bermerhaven that Kyiv and Moscow had challenged the Commission’s right to declare a protected area in the Ross Sea, the environmental necessity of doing so, and any protected area's duration, and size.
The sea covered by the proposed marine protection area provides a home for dolphins, seals and penguins, and roughly equals the size of all the reserves created around the world so far.
By late Tuesday afternoon, the debate at the talks had gravitated towards potential compromise options, focused on the scientific case for protecting two parts of the Ross Sea, in particular.
Chris Jones, the chair of the CCAMLR’s scientific committee told the Bremerhaven press conference that scientific data to support the protected claim for the north of the Ross Sea – a spawning ground for toothfish – had been contested.
But this part of the sea contained a substantial chain of sea mounds, he insisted.
“We have established that the best available science has been used to underpin these proposals,” Jones said. “It is really up to the Commission now and the values of the various members of CCAMLR, and their political will.”
If no agreement is reached today, a second Commission will be held in Hobart, Australia, later this year.
Intense efforts have been made to sign off on a deal in Bremerhaven, including one heated scientific committee meeting that ran through to 5:30 a.m. on 14 July.
But as talks wound towards stalemate late yesterday afternoon, observers spoke of proceedings descending into a mess, and delegates visibly appearing upset.
Dubner himself played down the chances of an agreement today. “This process needs some time for discussions and clarifications, and you can’t do it overnight,” he said.
“It is difficult to reach solutions in there years,” he added. “Sometimes it takes ten years or even longer - although I wouldn’t say that will necessarily be the case with MPA’s.”