Progress to create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica is being slowed by the U.S. government shutdown, which threatens to delay a key meeting for the project for at least a year.
The U.S., European Union and the 23 member countries of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) are supposed to next week in Hobart, Australia to decide on the proposal. But according to the AP, the U.S. delegation’s travel plans are cancelled due to the shutdown. If the shutdown ends, or the delegation gets special permission to travel, they may still be able to make the meeting. But if they don’t the proposal will be put on hold for a year or more.
The proposal for the marine reserve in the Ross Sea is an initiative that’s been on the table for the past decade but was thwarted in July by fishing interests in Russia and Ukraine. Since then, the size of the proposed reserve has been reduced by 40 percent, from about 888,035 square miles to about 517,000 square miles, in the hopes that Russia and Ukraine will agree to a scaled-down version of the plan — one that still would create the planet’s largest marine reserve.
If approved by all the countries involved in the initiative — a unanimous agreement that’s required in the CCAMLR — the marine reserve would create a non-fishing zone nearly twice the size of Texas off the coast of Antarctica. This would provide some relief to a region whose marine environment is facing increasing pressure from overfishing and climate change. Krill, a key part of the Antarctic marine ecosystem, are being increasingly fished so they can be used in aquaculture, aquariums and Omega-3 supplements. Krill, whose eggs need low acidity, deep water and a narrow range of water temperature in order to hatch and grow successfully, are also threatened by climate change, which is leading to warmer, more acidic oceans. Despite these threats, however, a 2011 study called the Ross Sea, where the proposed reserve would be located, “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth,” making it a perfect candidate for protection.
The marine reserve could also set a precedent for further reserves of its kind. Though more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are in decline, less than 1 percent of the oceans are fully protected from fishing. Protecting marine areas from fishing have been proven to work in the past — when one town in Mexico closed its waters completely to fishing in 1995, it experienced a 463 percent increase in biomass over the next 14 years. It would also send a message about the importance of the health of our oceans at a time when study after study is reporting the dire consequences climate change is having on marine environments.
The shutdown’s interference with the delegation’s travel is just one more example of its effects on scientific research and initiatives. The shutdown has forced the closure of research stations in the Antarctic, meaning the research season that began on Oct. 1 has been halted until the government reopens. Many of NOAA’s research vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific are stuck at their docks, unable to go out to gather data. Luckily, other research vessels have weathered the shutdown better — according to Nature, most American academic oceanographic research is organized by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, which is funded through the end of December.