The Race To Save The Antarctic's Penguins, Whales And Seals

The U.S., EU, and 23 other countries will decide next month whether to protect the "heart of the world's ocean."
Adelie Penguins are one of the many marine species in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica, an are of near-pristine wilderness threate
Adelie Penguins are one of the many marine species in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica, an are of near-pristine wilderness threatened by climate change and industrial fishing.

The first humans to reach Antarctica’s Weddell Sea did not come in the name of exploration. They came in 1823 to kill seals. Lots of seals. Colonies of these marine mammals had already been wiped out across much of the Southern Hemisphere. Captain James Weddell — a British sealer after whom the southerly ocean would later be named — thought they could find more if they pushed further south than any human had done before.

Fast forward 195 years, and representatives of the U.S., along with 23 other countries and the European Union, are attending a meeting this week in Hobart, Tasmania, of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — the body responsible for protecting the Antarctic — to decide the fate of the Weddell Sea. The choice, which will be announced on Nov. 3, is stark: Will they open it up to more exploitation in the form of fisheries and mining or will they protect it and those animals within it in this age of global mass extinction?

Sea ice covers 75 percent of the Weddell Sea, the coldest sea on the planet, during the brutal Antarctic winter. As well as having six species of seals, the Weddell Sea is home to 12 species of whales — including blue, humpback and killer — and numerous marine birds, such as Adélie penguins, Emperor penguins and hundreds of thousands of Antarctic petrels.

It’s also hugely at risk. Climate change threatens its ecosystems and is melting the ice, making the sea much more accessible to commercial fishing, which could further imperil this pristine wilderness.

A Weddell Seal pokes through an ice hole.
A Weddell Seal pokes through an ice hole.

“The Weddell Sea is like the heart of the world’s ocean,” said Dr. Susanne Lockhart, a research associate for the California Academy of Sciences who has spent her career studying the species deep below Antarctic waters. “Cold water sinks here and drives deep-water circulation throughout the rest of the ocean basins, a crucial mechanism that helps regulate our planet’s climate.”

The EU wants to create the world’s largest protected area — 700,000 square miles, an area bigger than Alaska — covering the bulk of the Weddell Sea. The massive Marine Protected Area, an idea initially suggested by Germany, would keep the Weddell Sea free of fishing, even as it becomes physically accessible to fisheries such as krill and Antarctic toothfish for the first time in history due to climate-change-related melting ice. It would also halt any future attempt to mine the ocean floor or drill for oil.

In an effort to push the motion forward, Greenpeace launched a campaign this year backing the protection of the Weddell Sea. The eco-group gathered 2 million signatures, sent a three-month scientific expedition to the sea and even brought celebrities, including Javier Bardem, to see its beauty.

“We have an opportunity to protect a rare area of ocean wilderness while it is still in a near-pristine state,” said Louisa Casson of Greenpeace’s Protect Antarctica Campaign, adding “there has never been any industrial fishing in the Weddell Sea, as so far it has been largely covered by sea ice for most of the year.”

Despite the sea’s frigidity, scientists are discovering biological richness and diversity in the deep. “Many of the seabed communities that we encountered are highly complex, made up of ancient corals and sponges that provide habitat and shelter for an incredibly rich diversity of marine life,” Lockhart said.

Casson added that scientists currently estimate there are 10,000 species, many still undiscovered, in the deep Weddell Sea — “a diversity,” she said, “comparable to tropical reefs.” 

But the Weddell Sea’s coral reefs and ecosystems are already imperiled by climate change and ocean acidification. Researchers have also found plastic pollution and chemicals in Antarctic Seas.

“An escalation in commercial fishing combined with the effects of climate change could lead to a catastrophic collapse of the entire [Weddell Sea] system,” said Lockhart.

Protecting the area from fisheries would provide the ecosystem greater resilience under climate change. If well-protected, some believe the Weddell Sea could provide a vital refuge for cold-adapted species as the planet warms.

Krill is a key part of the eco-system in the Antarctic but populations are threatened both by climate change and commercial K
Krill is a key part of the eco-system in the Antarctic but populations are threatened both by climate change and commercial Krill fishing. 

The EU and U.K. have publicly backed the protected area proposal, but a number of countries remain a question mark. A source at the United States’ State Department said it supports the park.

While it may seem difficult to imagine 24 nations and the EU signing off on such a large protected area, it’s happened in the past. The CCAMLR agreed to its first protected area in 2009, setting aside 36,000 square miles near the South Orkney Islands. An even bigger victory came in 2016. After years of debate, the CCAMLR established the Ross Sea protected area in Antarctica, covering just under 600,000 square miles — more than twice the size of Texas — and creating what is currently the world’s largest protected area on the high seas.

Casson said such reserves have large-scale economic benefits.

“Wherever well-managed ocean sanctuaries are in place, we see physically bigger, more diverse and more abundant marine life both inside the protected waters and with spillover benefits outside the sanctuary. This can support sustainable, well-managed fishing outside of protected areas, which can contribute to global food security,” she said, adding that MPAs also help ocean ecosystems “avoid the worst effects of climate change by granting them additional resilience to adapt to changes.” 

Frozen Ross Sea around Ross Island. The Ross Sea is currently the largest protected area in the world.
Frozen Ross Sea around Ross Island. The Ross Sea is currently the largest protected area in the world.

Currently, more than 7 percent of the world’s oceans are protected, and the UN has set a target of 10 percent by 2020. But some conservationists have argued a much more ambitious marker: the Half-Earth concept, first proposed by biologist E.O. Wilson, argues that we should set aside half the planet, both in water and on land, in order to stem mass extinction and adequately fight climate change.

While it has proven too dangerous for humans to dive into the Weddell Sea itself, this year Lockhart spent several hours in a submersible diving into the Antarctic Sound, adjacent to the sea.

“It is an awesome feeling leaving the stark black, white and blue of Antarctica and descending into the darkness to find an explosion of color and life on the seabed,” she said.

Two hundred years ago, Antarctica was like Mars — we knew it was there but no one had ever set foot on it. Today, all that has changed. Thousands of scientists spend months on the continent every year, including some that actually spend winter there. Ice breakers, fishing vessels, and science expeditions move through the seas, and even tourist cruise ships visit.  At the same time, our global environmental crisis — from climate change to plastic pollution — has left nowhere untouched. Whether or not the Weddell Sea will remain remote and wild will be decided in the next couple of weeks.

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