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Politics

The Last Intact Sea

Hurray for sustainability. Commercial fishing for the Antarctic toothfish is permitted in the Ross Sea, provided that the biomass of the spawning stock (total weight of all the fertile adult fish) is still at least half of its previous level 35 years later. And at no time in that 35 years will the spawning biomass be allowed to fall below 20 percent of the pre-exploitation level.

That sounds pretty safe and reasonable. What better guarantee of the future health of the toothfish stock could you ask for?

Well, it might help to know where the toothfish actually spawn (but you don’t, not for sure. It’s certainly not the Ross Sea). And it could be handy to know when and how often they go off as adults to spawn, because they don’t mature sexually for about fifteen years and they can live to fifty.

Never mind. We’ll just pick a number for the Total Allowable Catch – say, 3,000 tonnes a year – and we’ll see how it goes.

These are big, slow-growing fish, about two metres long and up to 150 kg as adults, so 3,000 tonnes is around 30,000 individuals. That might be a safe take, but we don’t even know their numbers.

Actually, we don’t know all that much about the seals and penguins and killer whales that are the top predators in the Ross Sea either. Likewise for the silverfish, Antarctic krill and crystal krill at the bottom of the food chain. This is a very complex ecology, and we’ve just begun to study it.

If we had a dozen other ocean areas where there has been no major human interference yet, taking a few risks with this one would not be such a big deal. But this is the last one: in the Ross Sea, one and a half million sq. km. off the Antarctic coast where there has been no pollution, and where fishing only began in 1996, the local ecosystem is still more or less intact.

That is why there has been a proposal before the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) for the past five years to turn the Ross Sea into a Marine Protected Area.

New Zealand in the closest inhabited land to the Ross Sea, and three New Zealand-based fishing companies are taking half the toothfish that are caught there. Yet it was the New Zealand government, in partnership with the United States, that took the initiative to designate the Ross Sea as an MPA, of which around two-thirds (one million sq. km.) would be a strict “no-take”area..

Twenty-three of the 25 members of the CCAMLR have supported this proposal at each October meeting for the past five years, but the organisation only works by consensus. Every member must agree, and China and Russia didn’t. But last October the Chinese came around and supported the idea, and the Russians at least committed to “inter-sessional discussion” of the proposal: back-channel talks before this year’s meeting.

They all know the bigger picture is grim. Nobody takes much consolation from the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s most recent statistics, according to which the total global catch was 86 million tonnes in 1996, and only down to 77 million tonnes in 2010: an eleven percent decline in fourteen years.

The FAO’s statistics are very old, and if the trend has continued since 2010 then the total global catch is probably down to around 73 million by now. Moreover, this apparently slow decline may be misleading, because as the old stocks dwindled fishing fleets began operating in remote southern seas where the stocks had remained intact until recently.

If the only reason the global catch numbers still look fairly good is because the fishing fleets move on to new areas as old stocks become depleted, then we are in for a big shock when they run out of new areas to exploit. Probably not very long from now.

One of the good things about sea creatures, however, is that most of them reproduce very fast. Give them a decade or two without fishing, and it’s amazing how quickly they come back. So what marine life really needs is Marine Protected Areas that include 10 to 20 percent of the oceans’ total area.

About two percent of the oceans is currently in MPAs, mostly in areas that are not important to the commercial fishing industry. And only half of that area is strict “no-take” reserves that can act as nurseries for the recovery of entire damaged ecosystems.

Turning the Ross Sea into an MPA won’t reverse all the damage, but it is scientifically very important. It is even more important politically, because international cooperation on this could lead to much broader common action to save the marine biosphere.

This year’s CCAMLR meeting opens in Hobart, Tasmania on 17 October. The Russians are not even major players in the Ross Sea fishery, and there is at least a chance that this time they may do the right thing.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Actually…it”; and “New Zealand…”no-take”)