The international body that governs Antarctic waters is meeting on Monday and Tuesday in Bremerhaven, Germany to discuss whether to establish marine reserves around the world's southern-most continent.
Urging success, German Agricultural Minister Ilse Aigner recently said the meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) offered a "unique opportunity" for representatives of 24 countries and the European Union to "write history" by designating the world's largest marine reserves on Tuesday.
Nature conservation is also a question of geopolitical interests -- an arena in which no country wants to lose influence. The countries at the meeting are those active in Antarctica, in either a business or scientific capacity. So far, two opposing camps have remained insistent on their positions.
On the one side, the Western nations have proposed marine reserves. The United States and New Zealand are proposing to protect the Ross Sea area along Antarctica's east coast. In some areas, fishing would be banned; in other areas, strict limits would be imposed. But China, Japan, Ukraine, Norway and and Russia, in particular, have shown little interest in an agreement. All have considerable business interests in the region.
Human Cravings Threaten Idyll
If a marine conservation area were established in Antarctica, it would be unique in the world. The Antarctic seas are considered some of the world's most pristine. The extreme climate unites a very special community, with habitats for penguins, seals, whales, dolphins, squid and albatross, to name but a few species. Antarctica's nutrient-rich water is also the breeding ground of myriad species of krill, which is used not only to feed very diverse stocks of fish on the continent, but is also exported all around the world for use at fish farms or in health products.
But human cravings are now threatening this idyll. "The flora and fauna of Antarctica are under increasing threat from fishing and natural resource extraction," said Onno Gross, director of the marine conservation organization Deepwave. Norwegian ships also catch vast quantities of krill off the coast of Antarctica to feed large salmon farms back home. The government in Oslo has little interest in major marine reserves on the southern continent.
Norway has considerable influence, as well. The CCAMLR negotiations in Oslo are being led by Terje Løbach, an official at the Norwegian Fisheries Ministry. At the last CCAMLR meeting in Australia, his country was among those that offered the most adamant resistance to creating marine reserves. Participants claim Løbach used his advantage as the leader of the meeting to further the positions of his government rather than seek compromises. The conference in Australia ultimately failed to reach any agreement.
Russia vs. the United States
And this is only the second time since 1982 that the commission has called for a special meeting in addition to its annual conference. Pressure is expected to be increased in Bremerhaven against the countries that have been opposing the measures. "The European press will have the issue on its radar," said one German government source. "That will create more pressure on the skeptical states."
Still, there has been little movement. Russian representatives, for example, are leading the opposition against the US-New Zealand proposal for a marine protection area in the Ross Sea area. New Zealand and the US are proposing fishing quotas for the 2.3 million-square-kilometer area. But the Russians feel they have been cheated in the considerations. "They fear that the bear skin will be divided up without them," one participant said.
Given this spat, the US-New Zealand initiative has poor prospects for approval. The question is whether the alternative proposal for marine protection areas in eastern Antarctica can prevail. "In light of the reservations that are being presented here, a lot would still have to happen," said Tim Packeiser, a marine ecologist with WWF. He said the ocean shelves near the coast would have the best prospects for conservation.
A suggested compromise by Norway is causing turmoil: The creation of a protected area that would shrink with time. "That would set a dangerous precedent," says marine biologist Gross. Such a decision could become an example for future protected zones around the world. "We see, worriedly, that other countries are demonstrating their willingness," adds Packeiser.
Could Germany -- being one of the few largely economically disinterested countries represented in the Antarctic -- step in to broker a deal? Agriculture Minister Aigner has a venture of her own: Germany will soon suggest a protected zone in western Antarctica in the Weddell Sea, which for decades has been a focal point of German researchers. "The seafloor flora in this area is equal in its beauty and diversity to tropical coral reefs," raved Aigner.
Nevertheless, neither the minister nor high-ranking delegates from Germany or other countries are expected in Bremerhaven. Negotiations remain, as they say, at "the working level." Is a breakthrough still possible? A group of over 30 environmental organizations remain optimistic: The undeterred Antarctic Oceans Alliance (AOA) is suggesting another 19 marine areas near the Antarctic that would, at some point, merge with the nationally brokered zones.