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Protecting the Ross Sea


Pods of killer whales, sometimes 100 strong, patrol the ice edges. Three separate ecotypes live in the Ross Sea, each specializing in a different diet. (John B. Weller)

On October 28th, twenty-four states, including the United States, China, and Russia, as well as the European Union, created the Ross Sea marine protected area.

The Ross Sea is a vast and remote area of water and ice in the Southern Ocean off the frigid coast of Antarctica. It is also home to an unusually diverse and rich ecosystem, unique in its climate and geography, and one of the last remaining seas on Earth that remains unspoiled by human activity. It is home to a wide variety of deep-water species, and unlike nearly every other sea or ocean on our planet, its top predators – whales, seals, penguins, and seabirds – are still abundant.

Precisely because life is still abundant in the Ross Sea, it is in danger of exploitation by humans, particularly by commercial interests, and at risk due to the impacts of climate change.

That is why on October 28th, twenty-four states, including the United States, China, and Russia, as well as the European Union, created the Ross Sea marine protected area, or MPA, at 1.55 million square kilometers [598,000 square miles] the world’s largest ocean sanctuary.

“The Ross Sea MPA is designed to be a natural laboratory for valuable scientific research to increase our understanding of the impact of climate change and fishing on the ocean and its resources,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in a written statement.

This means that as of December 2017, when the agreement enters into force, the Ross Sea will be protected from nearly all human activity. Seventy-two percent of these waters will be off limits to commercial fishing, while in a few areas, some fish and krill may be harvested for scientific research. Other human activities will be strictly limited.

“The creation of the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area is an extraordinary step forward for marine protection,” said Secretary of State Kerry – and it did not happen by accident. “[The creation of the Ross Sea MPA] happened thanks to many years of persistent scientific and policy review, intense negotiations, and principled diplomacy. It happened because our nations understood the responsibility we share to protect this unique place for future generations.”

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