The filibuster has gone international.
The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources spent the past ten days in Hobart, Australia attempting, for the third time, to pass a measure designating what would be the world’s largest marine protected areas — conservation zones in the Southern Ocean that rings the world’s least populated continent. After failing at last year’s annual meeting, and at a special meeting in Bremerhaven, Germany last summer, the U.S. and New Zealand delegations which had championed the proposal were hopeful that the third time would be the charm.
Instead, according to multiple reports, as the meeting wound down, the delegates from Russia and Ukraine effectively borrowed a page from the Ted Cruz playbook. They ran out the clock, refusing to end debate on the measure, thereby preventing it from coming up for a vote before the meeting drew to a close.
The Guardian quoted Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Southern Ocean sanctuaries project, saying Russia and Ukraine blocked the measure because they, “wanted to open up more areas for fishing and set a time limit of 10 years. Given that it has taken that amount of time to draw up the protected zones, we would’ve spent more time planning this than protecting it, which is ridiculous.”
John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress, referenced the international agreement setting aside the Antarctic continent as a global commons focused on scientific research, and called out the proposal’s detractors for “engaging in a new cold war over Antarctic marine protected areas, meaning those universally accepted principals that prioritize conservation and collaboration will senselessly continue to stop at the water’s edge.”
In an opinion piece published earlier this week, Podesta and I pointed out the proposal’s scientific foundations, and called on the Russians to set aside their ersatz political opposition on jurisdictional grounds.
Russia’s reasons for opposing the sanctuary designation last summer remain unclear. Russia has just six ships currently authorized to fish near Antarctica — fewer than Korea and the United Kingdom, both countries that supported the sanctuary — making it seem unlikely that fishing interests swayed the Russian negotiators. And it was the Russians who had requested the meeting in Bremerhaven in the first place, only the second special meeting in the more than 30-year history of the commission, leading observers to assume that a deal to protect the Southern Ocean would be forthcoming.
But in Bremerhaven, the Russians took a baffling stance: Rather than questioning the environmental or scientific justification for the proposed Southern Ocean sanctuary, they insisted that the commission does not have the legal authority to create marine protected areas at all. The argument was particularly puzzling given that the commission created a sanctuary near Antarctica’s South Orkney Islands in 2009 without protest from the Russians.
Despite the measure’s failure, the Russian and Ukrainian delegations appeared to drop their jurisdictional opposition and began negotiating in good faith over the parameters of the sanctuary rather than its legality. While these negotiations failed to produce a deal, the tactical switch means there may yet be hope for the proposal at the next annual meeting in 2014.
The two proposed sanctuary designations would cover 1.3 million square kilometers of the Ross Sea, and 1.6 million square kilometers off East Antarctica, much of which would be kept off-limits to fishing. Together, the two areas would more than double the amount of the world’s ocean area that has been designated as marine protected areas.
These waters are home to threatened and endangered species of fish, whales, and other marine life. They have been hit increasingly hard in recent years by fishermen targeting Patagonian toothfish — more commonly known as Chilean sea bass — and more recently krill, tiny shrimp-like creatures which are a foundation of the food web, and rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Healthy ecosystems are more resilient ecosystems. So as the twin threats of global climate change and ocean acidification continue to put the planet’s marine resources at risk, nations must avail themselves of every opportunity to ensure we protect Earth’s few remaining unspoiled places. The U.S., New Zealand, and their allies in this fight must keep the heat on Russia and Ukraine to help thaw negotiations in this new cold war.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.