The importance of protection in the Antarctic Peninsula: the development and status of the MPA proposal

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Antarctica. Photo: INACH/Harry DíazAntarctica. Photo: INACH/Harry Díaz
By César Cárdenas
Translation by Andy Ford

The western region of the Antarctic Peninsula is quite a peculiar place for several reasons, including being one of the regions of the planet, after the Arctic, that has displayed the most severe environmental changes in the last few decades. The increase in air and ocean temperature has produced a series of other physical changes along the western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), among which are the decrease in cover and duration of sea ice and increases in the precipitation, melting, and retreat of many glaciers, especially in the southern part of the WAP 1.

Additionally, this area, due to its proximity to South America, brings together a number of anthropogenic activities which include science, logistics, tourism, and resource extraction. Regarding this last point, krill fishing is the main extraction activity in this region, with almost 400,000 tons being extracted per season in recent years. Even though catches have gone up in the last few years, the big problem facing the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCRVMA, for its acronym in Spanish) is not how many are being extracted, but rather where and when.

Changes in the operation of the fleet, combined with environmental changes (for example, rise in temperature and loss of sea ice cover) have allowed access to fishing areas for more time, thus increasing the concentration of catches in time and space, in areas that coincide with the presence of important animal populations that depend on this crustacean, such as penguins, seals, and whales (which have experienced a notable recovery in the last few decades after the prohibition on hunting). This increases the risk for potential resource competition between fishermen and animals that depend on krill.

Due to their characteristic principle of ecosystem-based management (which does not preclude the exploitation of resources, as long as it is done in a sustainable manner and takes into account the effects of fishing on other components of the ecosystem), the marine protected areas (MPAs) in the area of Convention are not necessarily intended to prohibit fishing; rather, they may be established in order to protect various conservation targets, such as species, processes, and ecosystems, among others.

In turn, the establishment of no-take zones, in addition to protecting a particular resource (such as krill), can also be quite useful for making comparisons with areas where fishing does take place, with the goal of evaluating the potential effects of human activities and differentiating them from those produced by environmental variability. Antarctic species have evolved in an environment that is characteristically very cold and stable, and the MPAs may provide them better chances of adapting to an ecosystem currently pressured by severe environmental changes.


Infographic: Siegert, Martin J/Frontiers. Siegert, Martin J/Frontiers.


Toward an MPA in the Antarctic Peninsula
For this reason, since the year 2012, Chile and Argentina have been working together on a proposal to establish an MPA in the area of the Antarctic Peninsula and south of the Scotia Arc (Domain 1 of the CCRVMA). In its first stage, the process included the development of workshops with international experts for the purpose of defining conservation targets, their percentages of protection, and which scientific data were available to formulate a spatial plan for the protection of the species and ecosystems in the region.
Based on the CCRVMA standard on the use of the best science available, 146 data layers were specified which were used to propose, in the 2017 meeting, priority conservation areas (PCAs) and a preliminary MPA proposal (SC- CCAMLR XXXVI/17, 18), with the goal of providing additional protection for:
  • Representative benthic and pelagic environments,
  • Large scale benthic and pelagic ecosystemic processes,
  • Areas important for the lifecycle of zooplankton species, including Antarctic krill breeding areas,
  • Areas important for the lifecycle stages of fish (especially those species that were overexploited in the past),
  • Distribution of marine mammals and birds during key stages of their life, and
  • Unique or rare benthic environments.
Finally, in 2018, the proposal for the establishment of an MPA in Domain 1 (CCAMLR-XXXVII/31) was formally presented by means of a conservation measure (CM, official measures used by the CCRVMA to support the conservation of Antarctic living marine resources and the management of fisheries in the Southern Ocean) (2), and then in 2019, a revised version of the CM was presented.
Following the formal presentation in 2018, during the same meeting, it was agreed upon to establish an e-group (electronic work group), a pioneering initiative in the proposal processes of MPAs in the CCRVMA, so that the interested parties, including scientists, members of the fishing industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), could participate openly in the discussions of the scientific aspects of the proposal (CCAMLR-38/25 Rev. 1) whereby a modified proposal was presented in the October 2019 meeting, which still didn't reach the consensus necessary in the Commission for its adoption and implementation (3).
A new proposal for a marine protected area along the western Antarctic Peninsula by the Governments of Argentina and Chile (October 2018). Source: WWFA new proposal for a marine protected area along the western Antarctic Peninsula by the Governments of Argentina and Chile (October 2018). Source: WWF
This proposal establishes Krill Fishery Research Zones (KFRZs) in accordance with the CMs established by the Commission. It also establishes General Protection Zones (GPZs) in the northern part of the peninsula that protect several conservation targets (SC-CAMLR-38/BG/03) that include, for example, the protection of areas important for fish reproduction and also for foraging during the breeding seasons of Antarctic penguins such as chinstrap and Adelie penguins, in which are featured important colonies located in the northern part of the peninsula. In the south as well there is another large general protection zone which protects areas important to the lifecycle of krill and includes areas like Margarita Bay, which possesses a complex ecosystem due to its particular oceanographic characteristics.
The new proposal was modified based on new scientific evidence, discussions in the work groups of the CCRVMA as well as through the e-group, thus incorporating, for example, an increase in area of the GPZ in the southern peninsula and simplification of the model to allow the redistribution of fishing efforts in the northern region, in order to avoid a major rise in the spatiotemporal concentration of the krill-fishing vessels that could have effects on predators and the ecosystem in general.
The AMPD1 proposal, due to the complexity of the area in question in terms of environment, science, geopolitics, and fishing interests, has been the subject of long discussions in recent years, with no consensus for its adoption having been reached to date.
The process developed by Chile and Argentina has been featured in the specialized literature (Sylvester & Brooks 2020) as an example of leadership and strong scientific collaboration for being a transparent, open, and collaborative process, which could become a model to follow for other parallel processes that are developed in the CCRVMA.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of establishing MPAs in key locations for life on our planet, something that gives us hope that in a not-so-distant future, a consensus for establishing this new MPA in Antarctica will be reached, which will protect the fragile ecosystems in the region even more, while at the same time ensuring the rational use of the resources in the Southern Ocean.
The author, Cesar Cardenas, is a researcher with the Chilean Antarctic Institute.