Emperor Penguins. Photo: Ian Duffy

While the planet’s oceans steadily decline from pollution and overfishing, the ecosystem of Antarctica’s Ross Sea endures in a relatively pristine state.  The U.S. and New Zealand have spent the past two years negotiating an agreement to create a permanent marine sanctuary in this remote corner of the south polar cap.  The proposed agreement would have been presented jointly in October to the 25-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), but New Zealand’s ruling National Party rejected it in early September during a closed door cabinet session.

An international treaty protects the land area of Antarctica from commercial and military exploitation, but the measures protecting the continent’s marine environment are relatively lax.  Since Ross Sea represents the last intact marine ecosystem on earth, the U.S. maintains that fishing should be banned altogether and the area made accessible for scientific research only.  It was hoped that presenting a model agreement to the CCAMLR in tandem with New Zealand would have improved its chances of approval by the Commission.

A counter view is eloquently presented in a New Zealand-produced documentary entitled The Last Ocean (www.lastocean.org).   The organization points out that the Antarctic toothfish is the top fish predator in the Ross Sea, and overfishing would destroy the natural balance of this delicate environment.  The toothfish lives up to 50 years, maturing slowly and reproducing late in its lifespan.  Since the fishing industry targets the largest specimens, it tends to capture the fish in the prime of their breeding years.

The toothfish shares its fiercely cold habitat with a rich diversity of mammals, birds, fishes, and invertebrates; check some of the primary species out at www.lastocean.org/Ross-Sea/Antarctic-wildlife-animals-Adelie-penguin-Emperor-penguin_I.2431.  The sea’s dominant feature, the Ross Ice Shelf, extends over an area approximately the size of France and covers nearly half of the Ross Sea.  Winds blowing off the shelf in winter push the seasonal ice out away from its edge, creating pools of open water in which phytoplankton bloom prolifically starting early in the spring.

Competing plans for management of the Ross Sea have now been forwarded to the CCAMLR by the U.S. and New Zealand in preparation for the annual meeting in October.  With a final international agreement in doubt at this point, The Last Ocean urges conscientious consumers worldwide to boycott purchase and consumption of the “Chilean sea bass.”

You can see for yourself the hardy species of the Antarctic on one of Natural Habitat Adventures’ ship-based expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula, the Classic Antarctic Expedition and Antarctica:  The Ultimate Polar Nature Expedition.