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Russia Blocks Bid to Establish Massive Antarctic Marine Reserves

Penguins

SOURCE: AP/Australian Antarctic Division

Two penguins are seen in the Antarctic's Cape Royds. Russia this week blocked efforts to create marine reserves off the coast of Antarctica, which would protect species and preserve habitats.

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Remember back in the Cold War days when battle lines were clear? Americans wore the white hats, and the Soviet Union sported the black? Rocky IV? U.S.A. 4, U.S.S.R. 3?

Those old roles re-emerged somewhat this week in Bremerhaven, Germany, when the Russian Federation—supported by one of its former soviet territories, Ukraine—stood up not just to the United States but also to the European Union and the other 23 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR. At a special intercessional meeting, the commission was poised to implement arguably the single-greatest accomplishment in high-seas international ocean conservation—the establishment of massive marine reserves in the waters of the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica—when Russia used its veto power to block implementation.

Marine reserves, also known as marine protected areas, are portions of the ocean set aside for some level of special protection. They can include no-fishing zones and typically have other strict regulations on industrial activity. The proposed Southern Ocean reserves would cover more than 3.8 million square kilometers of the Ross Sea and other areas around Antarctica—more space than all of the world’s existing marine reserves combined.

On Monday night, as members of the U.S. Senate cloistered themselves in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) from invoking the so-called nuclear option to break the logjam of Republican filibusters, the heads of delegation to CCAMLR concluded their own special meeting. And if you think the U.S. Congress’s deliberative process is dysfunctional, consider this: The Senate emerged from its meeting with the framework of a deal. CCAMLR did not.

Because CCAMLR, similar to many international organizations, requires unanimity among its members to pass resolutions, Russian opposition means the proposal will not move forward, despite support from every other participating country except Ukraine. It’s widely expected that Ukraine will follow Russia’s lead if its larger neighbor decides to permit the designation.

Part of the reason Russia’s opposition came as such a surprise to other members of the commission is that the Russians were the ones who requested the special meeting at the conclusion of the annual meeting last October in Hobart, Australia. As this was just the second special meeting ever called in the more than 30-year history of the commission, observers and other member states believed a deal was in the offing.

So what caused the Russians to balk?

One theory is that fishing interests may have fueled the opposition. Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish, more commonly seen on restaurant menus as Chilean sea bass, became an increasingly sought-after species in the 1990s and continues to be prized by chefs and diners for its mild-tasting flesh. Toothfish mature and reproduce slowly, which means overfishing can easily occur, and illegal catches were rampant until recently.

Similarly, krill—tiny shrimp-like creatures that occur in massive blooms and serve as the primary food source for many penguin, seal, and whale populations in the Southern Ocean—are now being pursued with increasing vigor by the world’s fishing fleets. They are harvested as feed for aquaculture operations and aquariums and, increasingly, for Omega-3-rich krill oil. At present, however, the Russians have just five fishing vessels operating in the Ross Sea region, meaning they are likely not influential enough to have sufficiently swayed their government’s opinion.

Rather, Russian opposition to the sanctuaries focused on a procedural issue they had not raised at previous meetings. Instead of questioning the science or rationale for the reserves, the Russian delegation insisted the commission had no legal right to establish them in the first place. Such protestations really amount to little more than stall tactics. CCAMLR’s guidelines, approved by all member states, including Russia, clearly grant the commission this authority. In fact, the organization has already established one marine protected area—the world’s first outside any national jurisdiction—off the coast of Antarctica’s South Orkney Islands.

The commission’s efforts to protect some of the most pristine regions on the planet come as the United Nations and other international bodies are ramping up their efforts to address the lack of management of perhaps the planet’s last unregulated area—the high seas. Individual nations have jurisdiction over waters extending out to 200 miles from their shores—and slightly farther than that in the case of some “extended continental shelf” claims. But this still leaves nearly half of the world’s oceans outside any one country’s jurisdiction.

John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress, recently joined the Global Ocean Commission, an organization developing recommendations to improve international management of the high seas. As the CCAMLR meeting got underway, the Global Ocean Commission’s co-chairs sent a letter to the leaders of CCAMLR’s member states urging approval of the sanctuaries that would enhance international protection of critical habitats. The co-chairs called the proposals “a significant and historic foundation for global ocean ecosystem protection.”

The Global Ocean Commission and other proponents of the sanctuaries are not giving up despite this setback, and the issue will be back on the table at CCAMLR’s 2013 annual meeting, which is to be held once more in Hobart, Australia, in October. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a strong statement following the meeting in Germany this week, saying that “a formulation for protecting the Ross Sea can and will be found, period.”

In a seminal article published in 1968, Garrett Hardin detailed a dilemma he dubbed “the tragedy of the commons.” He theorized that the absence of regulation of commonly held property would inevitably result in its destruction. The agreement governing the Antarctic continent represents perhaps our greatest example of cooperative management of a commons. It is time to extend those principles to the Southern Ocean as well.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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