Across the planet, eco-systems are in a dire state. Many believe a mass extinction is under way, the sixth since life first started in the primaeval melting pot billions of years ago.
This chilling fact adds a surging piquancy to the moment when you stand on the deck of an icebreaker and stare out over the vast, remote wilderness that is the Weddell Sea, a huge expanse of icy ocean fringing the Antarctic continent.
It is the coldest sea on Earth, indeed it is the cold water heart of the planet, pumping and driving the deep water currents that circulate around the world’s oceans – a crucial mechanism that helps regulate our climate systems.
Here too exists a spectacular festival of life. It is the realm of blue whales and orcas, of leopard seals and penguins and myriad marine animals, of thousands of species yet to be discovered. It is not yet the realm of man. And many want to keep it that way.
In February this year, I joined a Greenpeace expedition to the western edge of the Weddell Sea on board the icebreaker the Arctic Sunrise. On board, marine scientists were collecting scientific evidence to back the proposal to create what would be the largest protected area on Earth, five times the size of Germany.
The proposal aims to ring-fence almost two million square kilometres of these rich waters, restricting commercial fishing and other human activity including any future attempt to mine the seabed or drill for oil.
Dr Susanne Lockhart of the California Academy of Sciences journeyed down to the ocean floor in the expedition submarine.
“We encountered seabed communities that were highly complex, consisting of ancient corals and sponges that provide habitat and shelter for an incredibly rich diversity of marine life,” Lockhart said. “It is imperative this area is protected.”
The proposal has been put forward by the European Union. But for it to come into effect it has to win consensus at the end of this week from all 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, currently meeting in the Australian city of Hobart. The commission was set up to protect the seas around the Antarctic.
Will McCallum, the lead oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, has spent the past year galvanising support for the bid. As the commission meeting opened he handed in a petition with two million signatures in favour of the sanctuary.
“We have an opportunity to protect a rare area of ocean wilderness while it is still in a near pristine state,” McCallum said. “The Antarctic Ocean Commission has given itself the mandate to create this large-scale network of protected areas. We believe the Weddell Sea proposal is absolutely filling that mandate.”
On board the Arctic Sunrise, we ploughed through the sea ice to remote, isolated waters where few ships venture. Where biological richness and diversity is comparable to tropical reefs, where nature is on a planetary scale.
But research shows whenever well-managed ocean sanctuaries are in place, there is more diverse and more abundant marine life, both inside protected waters and with spillovers outside.
Which means sustainable fisheries can be managed beyond the protected areas, good news for the commercial fishing fleet and for global food security.
Which begs the question, why wouldn’t this sanctuary proposal be passed without debate?
Global environmental imperatives do not always measure up to perceived national interests. And for any proposal to pass at the commission, it needs a unanimous ‘yes’ vote. China and Russia blocked a similar proposal for East Antarctica in 2017 and it’s feared the same could happen this year.
Already there are reports of ugly disagreements and stalling, with some saying now the Weddell Sea proposal has come to the table, it has little chance of success. However, there was also doubt and pessimism in 2016 when, out of the blue, consensus was reached for a similar sanctuary in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.
If the proposal is blocked, the role of the Antarctic Commission itself may come into question. Its job is to protect the continent’s seas, which no single country controls, and ensure they do not become a free for all.
In 2011, the commission agreed to create a network of Marine Protected Areas throughout the Southern Ocean by 2020. As it stands near the end of 2018, a mere two have been designated.