A first-time high seas Marine Protected Area (MPA) has been established in the Southern Ocean, eliminating fishing and giving scientists a special opportunity to study the effects of climate change in a region that is home to more species than the Galapagos Islands.
At its recent meeting, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) approved the new high seas marine protected area south of the South Orkney Islands in the Antarctic Peninsula Region. The Commission further agreed to a work plan to create networks of high seas MPAs across 11 other high priority areas in the Southern Ocean by 2012.
The marine protected area, the result of four years of development work, covers about 94,000 square km of the Southern Ocean, an area slightly larger than Portugal.
'The Commission should be proud of this remarkable achievement,' said Rob Nicoll, WWF-Australia Antarctica and Southern Ocean Initiative Manager.
'But it is just the first step in the Commission's new work plan to create a network of high seas MPAs across the whole of the Southern Ocean by 2012 and they must continue working towards this goal.'
'Members must ensure they make good on this decision and commit the required resources and political will to achieve comprehensive protection of the Southern Ocean's unique marine environments and species.'
Once the MPA comes into force in May 2010, no fishing activities and no discharge or refuse disposal from fishing vessels will be allowed within its boundaries
WWF was deeply involved in laying the groundwork for the MPA's designation. In 2006, a WWF led initiative to classify important bioregions of the Southern Ocean directly led to 11 large areas being identified as priorities for MPA designation, the South Orkney's being one of these areas. These bioregions form the basis of the scientific case for the MPAs designation with two bioregions represented with the MPA.
A bioregion is an area where habitats, communities, and physical features will be more similar to each other than other areas. The two bioregions represented within the MPA are the Weddell Gyre and Antarctic Shelves bioregions.
In addition to containing these bioregions, the new MPA is an area of high biological productivity, a key habitat for krill and an important foraging area for Adelie penguins. Submarine shelves and seamounts within the area also contain important habitats for benthic (bottom dwelling) creatures.
A recent comprehensive study in and around the South Orkney Islands by researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Hamburg found the region was home to 1,200 species of sea and land animals - more than the Galapagos Islands.
A third of these were not previously known to live in the region and five species were entirely new to science.
The Orkney Islands MPA will also play a key role in detecting climate change. It is easier to detect changes to the distribution of species around the South Orkney Islands than many other areas in the Southern Ocean. Such changes, far from the impact of humans, could act as early indicators of climate change near Antarctica.
According to scientists, changes to species distribution would likely occur as the waters around the islands become warmer. Under these conditions, some species may shift south to cooler regions while others species used to more temperate conditions could move in.
'The research carried out on these species' movements within this protected area could alert us to the affects of climate change not just in Antarctica but also the rest of the world,' said Nicoll.
'These distant regions need to be protected not just to preserve their species but because they could offer an early warning system for us all.'