New Zealand has a long association with the Antarctic’s Ross Sea region. For more than 100 years explorers and scientists have set off from our ports going via the Ross Sea to reach the southern continent. More recently a few of our own boats have set off each year to catch fish in the Ross Sea to be sold to rich diners overseas. Now we’ve been given the perfect chance to put a bit more give rather than take into our relationship with what is being described as the world’s ‘last ocean’.
Decisions about the future of the Ross Sea are going to made later this year. It’s an opportunity that can’t be missed and our Government is in pole position to make sure this stunningly beautiful region, with its rich ecosystem, gets the widespread protection it deserves.
For half a century the continent has been protected from exploitation and now it’s time to put in similar measures for the waters around it which are home to thousands of species, some of which are found nowhere else on the planet. The Ross Sea’s rich biodiversity includes orcas, minke whales, toothfish, Weddell seals, Adélie and Emperor penguins and petrels.
The Ross sea is called ‘the last ocean’ quite simply as it’s virtually unspoiled by human activity. If you could go back in time - hundreds, maybe even thousands of years - you’d unlikely see many changes in this marine utopia. Sadly the same can’t be said for any other ocean as, in varying degrees, they’ve all been subjected to overfishing, pollution, invasive species, acidification and increasing marine traffic.
The Ross Sea could go the same way which is why it’s vital to put in protection measures now. Back in 1996 New Zealand sent the first fishing boat into the Ross Sea and opening the way for others to follow. Now every summer a bunch of dogged vessels defy the odds and conditions crossing by piercing through the Southern Ocean to haul fish out of the Ross Sea. Why? Because they’re getting harder and harder to find elsewhere which is making it worth the risk for them.
There are obvious parallels with the oil industry which is trying to force its way into the far northern waters of the Arctic or in oceans so deep and isolated that they’ve never been previously considered like New Zealand’s Raukumara basin.
Are we that desperate for fish? No, the fish caught in the Ross Sea are not helping to feed the planet just a few diners and specialty store shoppers with expensive tastebuds in the US and Asia who like to order Antarctic toothfish (although, bizarrely, it’s sometimes marketed as Chilean seabass). While the toothfish market may be relatively small it’s having a negative impact on the Ross Sea ecosystem. Scientists are sounding alarm bells and are calling for the region to be included in a network of Antarctic marine reserves.
Environmental groups agree and have formed the Antarctic Ocean Alliance to encourage Governments to take action immediately. One of the key pressure points is the international body of 25 countries which meets in October with the explicit purpose of talking about the conservation of marine life the Southern Ocean. New Zealand is a significant player in that grouping. It has a proposal to protect some of the region. It’s a start but it needs to do better.
Again, imagine being a time traveler and returning to New Zealand one thousand years ago. Wouldn’t you want to do everything possible to protect the species you discovered there? We can do that for the Ross Sea.
The first step is to encourage our Government to push for the widespread protection of the Ross Sea at the October meeting. You can do that right now by sending a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Murray McCully here .