Iceberg, Southern Ocean, © Greenpeace/Jiri Rezac

Here's a on the sport report from Richard Page, defending Antarctica this week from Baltimore USA!

There are as many facets to the work of a Greenpeace campaigner as an iceberg; and like an iceberg, much of the work is unseen. This week saw Karli, New Zealand oceans campaigner and Southern Ocean veteran and myself ‘suited and booted’, attending the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Baltimore, USA – a week crammed with meetings, side meetings, presentations, receptions and ad-hoc corridor encounters.

This is an historic meeting, in that it marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. There has consequently been much fanfare, and indeed there is much to celebrate. Of huge significance was the securing of a fifty-year moratorium on mineral extraction and the agreement of the Madrid Protocol on environmental protection – achievements that Greenpeace played a key part in bringing about with its World Park Antarctica campaign.

Even with its elevated status as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science, Antarctica is still not safe from a whole slew of damaging human activities, and like the Arctic at the other end of the earth, is at risk from the ravages of climate change.

The shattering of the ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice shelf to Antarctica earlier this week is yet one more alarming symptom of the extreme changes happening at the poles, and the need for the industrialised countries to make drastic cuts in carbon emissions at December’s climate summit in Copenhagen. It should also spur governments attending the Antarctic Treaty meeting to move as fast as they possibly can to establish large scale marine reserves throughout the Southern Ocean.

It is well understood that healthy ecosystems as found in marine reserves are far more resilient to environmental fluctuations such as increases in temperature. Another benefit of setting aside areas and minimising disturbance is that such areas provide crucial scientific reference areas for studying climate change. These are in addition to the obvious conservation and fisheries benefits.

While the Antarctic Treaty has established many protected sites on land, so far it has given little consideration to designating marine sites, though within its mandate it has a duty to establish a comprehensive and representative network. The good news from this meeting is that the scientists of the Committee on Environmental Protection have met with colleagues from the Scientific Committee of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living resources (CCAMLR) – the related organisation that manages Antarctic fisheries and agreed to work together and identify and designate sites. A great deal of the credit for this should go to the UK and the enthusiasm of scientists working with the British Antarctic Survey.

Of course there’s a whole heap of work to do, but they are on the right track. The question now is how quickly will they work and will they create areas of sufficient scale?

Yesterday we saw a presentation by Dr David Ainley a scientist who is on a mission to secure comprehensive protection of the Ross Sea. A place of extraordinary beauty, the Ross Sea is special for a number of reasons, not least of which is because it is the area of the World Ocean least affected by human activity. The wildlife of the Ross Sea is extraordinary. It is home to 38% of the world’s Adélie penguins and 26% of the world population of Emperor penguins. Vast numbers of Weddell, crabeater and leopard seals are also live in the Ross Sea. 3,500 killer whales inhabit the area, a proportion of which are the newly described Type C killer whales, a smaller fish-eating species that hunts toothfish. Unlike most continental shelf ecosystems, the Ross Sea has not lost its top predators. The Ross Sea is, as Ainley points out, a unique and unparalleled site of huge biological and evolutionary significance, equivalent to Lake Baikal or the Galapagos Islands.

The Ross Sea has long held the interest of scientists, and many of the longest data sets relating to the Southern Ocean are from the Ross Sea. Unsurprisingly the Ross Sea has been identified as a priority area for protection by the CCAMLR scientists. To give this living laboratory full protection would not only enable scientists to study a unique ecosystem with an intact food web but also enable them to study the effects of climate change without the confusion of having to consider complicating factors. If the Antarctic Treaty were to step up to the plate and make the Ross Sea a marine reserve it would indeed living up to its aspiration of the Antarctic as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.

- Richard