Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources unable to agree on plan backed by Australia, France and EU
Conservationists have expressed frustration that an international commission for protecting marine life in Antarctica has failed for the eighth consecutive time to create a marine park across 1 million sq km on the continents east.
Members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) could not agree on the proposal, backed by Australia, France and the EU, that would have protected habitat for penguins, seals, whales and seabirds.
Some questioned the commissions credibility, which has a membership of 25 countries and the European Union and meets annually in Hobart, Tasmania.
The commission has struggled to make decisions on marine parks due to its rules that require all members to agree. Russia and China have previously been blamed for blocking the east Antarctic plan, but the meetings are behind closed doors.
Australias environment minister, Sussan Ley, had backed the proposal, saying the government was committed to protecting the region.
In a statement to Guardian Australia after the meeting, she said: [The marine park plan] is something that we see as worthwhile but we also respect the views of the nations at the conference. There was widespread support and these things can take time. We will continue to look at future strategies.
A statement from CCAMLR said the east Antarctica plan, as well as proposals for protected areas in the Weddell Sea and Western Antarctic Peninsula, would be considered again at next years meeting.
The East Antarctic marine park would have protected about 1 million sq km of ocean in three distinct areas, covering crucial habitats and foraging grounds for penguins, seals, whales and seabirds.
Frida Bengtsson, of Greenpeace, said: Despite the efforts of many members, CCAMLR appears to be going backwards. It is not acceptable that fisheries in the Southern Ocean move forward every year while progress is stalled on establishing marine protected areas.
Millions of people want to see the Southern Ocean protected and CCAMLRs inability to do this calls its credibility into question.
Speaking from Hobart, Claire Christian, the executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, which represents more than 15 environment groups, said it was not time to give up on CCAMLR.
She said in the lead-up to the meeting Russia and China had expressed concerns on how research and monitoring would take place in the marine park.
She told Guardian Australia: Thats usually something you decide after you designate a marine protected area. The science is clear and we cant back off, even if it is hard to do. We need to buckle down and work harder to find a way across the deadlock.
Prof Tim Stephens, an Antarctic treaty expert at the University of Sydney, told Guardian Australia that, like other fisheries organisations, what happens inside the CCAMLR meetings was opaque.
The one previous major success the declaration of a 1.55 million sq km marine park in the Ross Sea in 2016 had only happened, he said, after high-level political intervention from the United States from the then US secretary of state, John Kerry.
Stephens said: I think there needs to be a better strategy just going in with the science is not enough. There needs to be a serious injection of diplomacy and politics and tactics.
He said CCAMLR was the only organisation with the ability to declare protected areas in Antarctica and there was no alternative body to work with.
But if marine protected areas dont get up, then governments might want to start putting up more conservation measures. CCAMLR has adopted hundreds of conservation measures. Maybe governments might now look carefully at individual species to try and get outcomes through that.
Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the failure of the proposal for the eighth consecutive year was disheartening.
Over this time, we have seen multiple breeding failures for Adlie penguin colonies, habitat loss throughout the region, a concentrated krill fishing effort, and the warmest Southern Ocean temperatures ever recorded. Scientists have been clear that [marine parks] are needed to make a warming and acidifying ocean more resilient.
Unfortunately, government leaders failed to heed the UNs immediate call to action on climate change and made no contribution toward protecting the Southern Oceans critical ecosystem and its vital function as a carbon sink, nor the goal of safeguarding 30% of the worlds oceans by 2030.
Agreements were made at the meeting to adopt a new plan to monitor krill, a critical food source for many Antarctic species, while a major krill fishing industry group agreed to extend self-imposed restriction on fishing in some areas during key nesting and breeding times for penguins.
Also at the meeting, the commission banned fishing vessels from dumping plastics and any oil or fuel products across the vast 35.7 million sq km area covered by its convention an area covering about 10% of the worlds oceans.
Australian Antarctic Division scientist Dr Dirk Welsford was also endorsed as chair of the commissions scientific committee, the most senior elected role in CCAMLR.