Scientists want protection for mysterious Weddell Sea

Antarctica’s Weddell Sea is nearly impenetrable to human exploration.

For now at least.

Its inaccessibility and seemingly stable climate mean conservationists have been calling for years to turn it into what would be the largest marine protected area on earth – nearly 700,000 square miles or five times the size of Germany.

But so far, countries have failed to agree, potentially compromising this unspoiled ecosystem of untouched animal populations.

Louisa Carsen is an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace.

"It's urgent that we put in place an ocean sanctuary so that the expansion of industrial krill fishing does not add an additional pressure onto these populations as they try and build resilience to the climate crisis.”

Alex Borowicz is a researcher in polar ecology.

"The Weddell Sea is the sort of place that can crush a ship, like what happened to Ernest Shackleton with the Endurance. There’s ice drifting all over the place with unpredictable winds, unpredictable weather patterns so finding your way through the sea ice, the tabular icebergs is the challenge that you have to face when you’re coming to do research on a place like this."

He is part of a team from Stony Brook University in the U.S. that is hoping to change one reason cited for the slow progress on the Marine Protected Area designation: a lack of data on what exactly lives in the Weddell Sea.

"Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are crucial for conserving species around the planet in the ocean. But in order to understand where we should place these MPAs and what we're actually protecting, we need to do science on the ground first. That's why we're in a place like this, a penguin colony to understand change and what's here already so that we can protect the species where they need it most."

The team is particularly interested in how Adelie penguins are doing.

These penguins prefer colder climates and their populations have suffered in other faster warming parts of the Antarctic.

If their populations are holding up in the Weddell Sea this would provide further impetus for establishing the MPA, which was first proposed by the European Union in 2013.

CARSEN: “Governments have failed for several years to create an ocean sanctuary in the Weddell Sea. This cannot be another year of delay and continued harm to penguin populations and other wildlife here in the Antarctic."

Once granted, all fishing in the area would be banned, helping to safeguard species like penguins, blue whales, killer whales, as well as other species yet to be discovered.

Earlier in January scientists discovered a huge icefish colony of 60 million nests in the Weddell Sea. Researchers say it is the world’s largest fish breeding area known to date.

Though many countries have come on board, China and Russia remain two notable exceptions.

Both have strong fishing interests in the waters around the Antarctic.

BOROWICZ: "At the end of the day, it's the role of policymakers to decide what's most important, what sort of values motivate the creation of a protected area, and we can talk about what's going to happen to penguins. But whether that matters is up to the rest of the world."

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