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Nations debate giant Antarctic Ocean sanctuaries

Multi-nation talks on creating two vast sanctuaries in Antarctic waters have begun, with official saying marine reserve protecting the pristine Ross Sea has better chance of success.

SYDNEY // Multi-nation talks on creating two vast sanctuaries in Antarctic waters began yesterday with a key official saying a marine reserve protecting the pristine Ross Sea had the better chance of success.

A meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in Hobart brings together 24 nations and the EU to try to agree plans for conserving marine ecosystems in the Southern Ocean.

At stake, say environmentalists, is an ocean wilderness that is home to 16,000 known species, including whales, seals, albatrosses, penguins and unique species of fish.

Proposals to create two huge Marine Protected Areas – both of which failed to be agreed to at a special meeting in Germany in July at which Russia made objections – are on the table.

But a proposal from the United States and New Zealand for a protected zone in the Ross Sea, the deep bay on Antarctica’s Pacific side, is considered the best hope after its size was reduced. It now has a 1.25 million square kilometre no-fish zone.

“We believe that in this year we have a bigger chance to reach compromise, maybe not for both protected areas but, for example, for the Ross Sea,” said the commission chair, Leszek Dybiec.

Australia, France and the European Union are behind the second proposal, which calls for a 1.6 million square kilometre protected zone off East Antarctica, on the frozen continent’s Indian Ocean side.

The proposed protected areas are designed to conserve the remote southern regions and the commission’s executive secretary, Andrew Wright, expressed optimism “that we will get an outcome at this meeting”.

“I’m not sure that they will all get up and succeed in the current form but I am quietly confident that some revisions will take place to both proposals and one, or hopefully both, will get up,” he said.

The Hobart meeting is the latest attempt to agree on marine reserves after Russia stymied the plans at a special meeting in Germany in July, saying the no-fishing areas were too extensive and questioning the legal right of the commission to set up such sanctuaries.

Since then there have been mixed signals from the Russians on how they would vote but they are believed to have dropped their argument about the commission’s legality, boosting optimism that the sanctuaries would receive greater support in Hobart.

Because all 25 members of the commission have to agree for a decision to be made, regardless of the extent of their interest as a nation in Antarctica, negotiations are complex.

Mr Wright said it was not only the size of the zones that could be negotiated, but also the duration for which they would be kept as sanctuaries, along with elements such as research and monitoring programmes.

The New Zealand foreign minister, Murray McCully, has refused to rule out scaling back the New Zealand and US proposal, which has already been substantially reduced from 1.6 million square kilometres.

“Some modifications were made to the proposal, and there may be more yet,” he said yesterday.

Mr McCully said he was optimistic, but not confident, of reaching agreement in Hobart.

“We’ve got signs of good engagement leading up to the meeting but getting 25 countries to agree on something complex is going to be difficult,” he said.

“All of the negotiations are quite challenging but we’re satisfied that there’s engagement and good faith at the moment.”

If accepted, the combined area of the two sanctuaries is 2.85 million square kilometres, a fraction smaller than India, more than five times larger than France and 12 times the size of Britain.

Each proposal has the potential to create the world’s largest marine protection zone.

* Agence France-Presse

Updated: October 23, 2013 04:00 AM

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