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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012

A role for Japan in Antarctic marine protection


By MAYUKO YANAI and CLAIRE CHRISTIAN
Special to The Japan Times

When people hear the word "Antarctica," they might think about penguins or towering icebergs. But the Southern Ocean makes up 10 percent of the world's ocean and is home to almost 10,000 species — it's much more than ice and adorable penguins. Furthermore, some of the places in the Southern Ocean are of unusually high ecological significance. For example, Antarctica's Ross Sea was identified as being one of the least impacted large marine ecosystems remaining on Earth.

The importance of this finding cannot be underestimated. While the Ross Sea is not entirely untouched, it does boast a food web that is in much the same state as it has been for centuries. Despite being only 2 percent of the Southern Ocean, the Ross Sea has more than a quarter of the world's emperor penguins, almost one third of the world's Adelie penguins, and almost half of the South Pacific Weddell seal population. There are not many places left where scientists can study these kinds of intact, thriving marine ecosystems, making the Ross Sea extremely valuable for science. Over 500 scientists have agreed that the Ross Sea's continental shelf and slope should be made a marine reserve.

The East Antarctic coastal region is another area with important qualities. This vast region is home to a significant number of the Southern Ocean's penguins, seals, and whales, and contains rare and unusual seafloor and oceanographic features, which support high biodiversity. A proposal has been made to protect many important ecosystems here, but it excludes several key areas of seamounts (often hot spots for marine life) and areas near Prydz Bay that are major feeding areas for three species of seals and a whopping 25 species of seabirds.

Now is a crucial moment. Until Nov. 1, 24 countries and the European Union are meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, to make decisions that will impact Antarctic marine ecosystems for generations to come. Japan is one of those countries, all of which are members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This management body has agreed to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica by 2012. CCAMLR members are considering several proposals for MPAs that would form part of this network, including areas in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica.

The creation of this network would be a major step forward for ocean protection and conservation. Less than two percent of the planet's ocean area is protected, compared to over 10 percent of the land. At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, many countries agreed to establish representative networks of protected areas by 2012. The establishment of East Antarctica and Ross Sea MPAs would be a crucial step toward fulfilling this goal.

The countries of CCAMLR now have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in protecting the ocean, which provides food, employment, and recreation for millions of people around the world. However, some member countries remain skeptical about MPAs. Issues include concerns about reducing access to fishing in some areas, the costs of establishing and maintaining MPAs, activities of non-member countries, and the impression that more scientific research is needed. In favor of the MPAs, however, proponents can cite extensive research that justifies marine protection there and the extensive benefits they provide. Scientists advise that MPAs are essential for ocean health.

A number of groups and alliances are trying to put a public spotlight on the CCAMLR meeting, where government delegates meet behind closed doors. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance (antarcticocean.org/jp/) has created an online "Join the Watch" petition endorsed by big names like Richard Branson. It and the Antarctic and South Ocean Coalition (www.asoc.org) have released numerous papers about the merits of creating the MPAs. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio through the online petition network Avaaz garnered nearly a million signatures to "Save the Southern Ocean."

The world has a chance right now to protect the Antarctic marine ecosystems that are under increasing pressure from growing global demand for seafood, at the same time as climate change is making penguins, whales, seals and birds vulnerable to changes in their habitats and abundance of food sources.

Japan's official position has moved closer in recent times to supporting the creation of the proposed protected areas, but by showing leadership and voting in favor at this international meeting, the nation has a chance to do the right thing and help make marine ecosystem protection in the Antarctic a reality.

Mayuko Yanai is the climate and Antarctic campaigner for Friends of the Earth Japan. Claire Christian is the director of the Secretariat at the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an environmental NGO with observer status at CCAMLR.


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