The 1.55 million km2 area of the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica will become a marine protected area (MPA) from December 2017.
The CCAMLR said it was “incredibly proud” of the outcome of six years’ of “incredibly complex negotiation”.
The agreement between its 25 members including the EU means 72% of the area will be a 'no-take' zone where all fishing is forbidden, while some harvesting of fish and krill for scientific research will be allowed in other sections.
No krill fishing is currently taking place in the new MPA, where tooth fish vessels mainly operate.
However major krill supplier Aker BioMarine – which sources its 146,261 tonne annual krill catch solely from Antarctica – said it was watching the development closely as future areas were proposed that may impact its fishing patch.
Sign of limits to come?
Other areas such as the East Antarctica area, which is bigger still than the Ross Sea zone, and the Weddell Sea have been proposed by CCAMLR members as future protected areas.
While Norway-based Aker BioMarine does not fish in these areas, the company’s executive vice president of Krill sales Sigve Nordrum told us it was the “million dollar question” whether one of its fishing patches called ‘sector 48’ would become an MPA as had also been proposed.
The Ross Sea protected area follows CCAMLR's 2009 establishment of the world’s first high-seas MPA in the South Orkney Islands southern shelf, a region covering 94,000 km2 in the South Atlantic.
However this falls short of recommendations from academia that a third of the world’s oceans be designated protected.
Nordrum called this “a very ambitious goal”.
He said the company was “constructively working with” CCAMLR to find a solution for the fishery industry that balanced good management and good conservation of stocks.
‘Historic progress’: Krill industry
The CCAMLR meeting in Hobart, Australia, also saw the renewal of krill conservation measures and a voluntary agreement not to fish closer than six miles of penguin colonies.
The CCAMLR sets a catch limit of 620,000 tonnes distributed across four regions in the southwest Atlantic.
This 'trigger' level represents about 1% of the estimated 60m tonnes of the unexploited biomass of the krill population in this region, a level the CCAMLR has agreed should not be expanded unless scientific data indicates this would continue to be sustainable.
The actual annual catch sits far below this at around 0.3%.
The Association of Responsible Krill Harvesters (ARK), an industry group of which Aker BioMarine is a member, said the industry had showed CCAMLR it was serious about taking responsibility for the Antarctic ecosystem with this voluntary measure.
“It was great to see how the industry really came together by going beyond regulation and the expectations of CCAMLR, which led to historic progress in the conservation of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean,” said president of ARK and executive vice president of production and supply chain at Aker BioMarine Webjørn Eikrem.
“Taking care of the ecosystem in which we fish is the best way we can ensure the future of our fishery.”
Nordrum said the renewal saw no changes to krill stock management, but there had been a suggestion that in the future CCAMLR would alter management systems for krill.
This could mean changes to catch caps and a more data-based approach, however he said there were no concrete details on this yet.
Fellow ARK member and Norwegian krill firm Rimfrost also welcomed the move.
“Rimfrost sets sustainability high on the agenda as it is in our DNA,” said executive vice president of production Ole Arne Eiksund, adding it was working to ensure all companies harvesting krill in Antarctica understand the responsibility they have.
Rimfrost fished 5,600 tonnes of omega-3 and phospholipid-rich krill this year, all of which comes from the Antarctica.
However the company told us it does not fish in the Ross Sea area – which is covered by ice for most of the year – and therefore its krill supply would not be impacted.
World’s most pristine marine environments
CCAMLR was established in 1982 in response to increasing commercial interest in Antarctic krill resources.
Krill is a key part of the marine food chain and is the largest under-exploited marine resource on the planet, presenting both significant management challenges and opportunities.
CCAMLR has said if a suitable balance in krill fishing was found, it could become a “sustainable global food choice into the future”.
The last frontier
The Antarctic ocean is sometimes referred to as the ‘world’s last frontier’ because of its pristine waters and the 9,000 or more species it alone plays home to.
The Ross Sea Shelf is one of the most thriving areas of the Southern Ocean for wildlife.
The area is home to a large proportion of the world’s Adélie penguin, emperor penguin, Antarctic petrel, South Pacific Weddell seal and Ross Sea killer whale populations as well as providing a key breeding ground for the endangered blue whale.
British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists, who are part of the UK delegation represented at CCAMLR, said the new Ross Sea protected area was a “considerable achievement”, which “reflects a huge advance in protecting the marine system for science”.
Ship strikes underestimated
Friend of the Sea (FoS) founder and director Paolo Bray said it was a “very important achievement” considering the essential role the Southern Ocean plays in the production of nutrients that sustain life in the rest of the world’s oceans.
However, he told us fishery catches was just one part of the sustainability story.
“While NGOs have focused their attention on krill fisheries potential impact on whales, Friend of the Sea believes that ship strikes represent a greater and often underestimated cause of whales mortality,” said Bray, who is also founder and director of Friend of the Earth.
“It is disturbing to realise how many whales, protected in the Southern Ocean, are then killed by ship strikes on their northbound migration paths, as it happens in Southern Sri Lanka. Friend of the Sea has launched a year ago a campaign to lead the World Shipping Council to implement measures to reduce ship strikes.“
He said exact figures on this were scarce.