Southern Ocean life is unique and needs protection

Underworld under threat. flickr: sdluisier

On the 16th of July, Russian delegates blocked proposals to create a marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. The area involved, the Ross Sea, is often nicknamed “the last ocean,” as it is one of the largest and least touched areas of biodiversity in the world. Russia’s veto meant that plans to protect this area - plans that 24 countries supported and financed - were thwarted.

But what is so important about an area of ocean so far from any inhabited land?

Antarctica and its surrounding Southern Ocean comprise some of the harshest living conditions for life on earth. Extreme cold, sea-ice cover for many months of the year, and short summers that limit the algal blooms that fuel the food web are some of the most obvious differences when comparing conditions for life with elsewhere in the sea. These harsh conditions might prompt one to expect that there is relatively little life there. But they are exactly what makes the Southern Ocean unique.

Evolutionary wonders

What appears harsh to the human eye in fact allows a vast array of specially adapted life forms to exist. The Southern Ocean is known for its uniqueness in the diversity of organisms. Cold adaptation and evolution in thermal isolation over tens of millions of years has resulted in an ecosystem that is unparallelled. A famous example is the ice-fish, which uses antifreeze in the blood to protect it from sub-zero temperatures.

An icefish larvae off the coast of Antartica. Wikimedia: uwe kils

Many other species, such as sponges or the tiniest crustaceans, have evolved individual adaptations to allow them to thrive in the cold. Nowhere else do giant ribbon worms dominate the seafloor. Microorganisms and plankton usually dominate the open ocean all year round, but in the Southern Ocean they endure long winters by thriving in high-saline brine channels of the seasonal sea-ice before being released into the open ocean following ice breakup in spring. Antarctic krill feeds under the ice during winter, but has been found feeding as deep as 3,000m in summer. These are only few examples of the contrasting and somehow extreme adaptations found in species thriving in cold waters.

Most of these adaptations, and even many of the species, remain completely unknown to science. They may hold unknown biological substances that could revolutionise human medicine or other parts of our daily life. For instance, Antarctic invertebrates possess specific chemical defences for surviving in the harsh polar conditions. These compounds are therefore unique, and potentially useful as drugs for human diseases. However, the extraction, identification, and potential synthesis of such compounds is difficult and we are only at the very beginning of understanding the wealth of potential medical uses of such substances.

However, research into the biology and functioning of polar life in recent years has demonstrated that highly specialised adaptation to polar conditions largely comes at the cost of vulnerability to change. Disturbances to ecosystems such as global warming, and those with more local effects such as pollution and fishery depletion, can distort polar ecosystems.

So, should we care? And if so, what are the mechanisms in place to protect the Southern Ocean from short-sighted economic interests?

Protection

The fact that Antarctic ecosystems are vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts has been recognised since the early days of modern exploration in Antarctica. International regulation began in 1946 with the establishment of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Twelve nations signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and the Treaty entered into force on 23 June 1961. It is an open-ended commitment, to date signed by 43 countries.

The Treaty includes all areas below 60º South of latitude, and its purpose is to hold territorial claims in abeyance and ensure that the region is subject to peaceful international cooperation. An organisation linked to the Treaty, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), tries to protect the particularly vulnerable - and commercially attractive - species of the Southern Ocean.

Since the early days of the Treaty, human impacts on Antarctica have drastically changed. There is no independent control or any kind of active enforcement throughout most of the Treaty System, and the Treaty therefore relies on the willingness of the parties to comply.

However, this willingness was absent at last week’s conference in Bremerhaven, Germany. Russia, supported by Ukraine, blocked the attempt to adopt Marine Protected Areas in Antarctica. The targeted MPA area comprised more than 3.8 Million Square Kilometres of the Ross Sea and other parts of the Southern Ocean; a larger area than all existing MPAs combined.

Economic Agendas

Their primary reason for this may be due to commercial fishing interests. Particularly commercially viable are the Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish and the harvest of krill. These tiny shrimp-like animals sustain most of the Antarctic marine food web.

Russian fishing vessel. flickr: carstenfonsdal

MPAs are special sites of protection and no-fishing zones. The establishment of MPAs is a long-term commitment to the protection of biodiversity in one of the very last remaining, least-impacted ecosystems on our planet. Many fish stocks in the Southern Ocean have already plummeted to less than 20% of their estimated original stock populations, sharing the fate of many fisheries worldwide.

Whether or not we can protect part of the planet from the harvest of resources in the long term is debatable, given the continued growth in global human population.

However, this should not curb our current efforts to protect those ecosystems which are particularly vulnerable to impact - ecosystems that also may fuel significant scientific and medical advancement - especially when the threat is unsustainable and economically driven.