Russia stymies NZ's Antarctic sanctuaries bid

AT HOME: Emperor Penguins swimming in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.
AT HOME: Emperor Penguins swimming in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

New Zealand's diplomatic bid to create the world's largest marine sanctuary in the Ross Sea has hit problems with Russia, backed by Ukraine, questioning its legality.

New Zealand and the United States have campaigned for two years to create the world's largest marine protected area (MPA) over 2.3 million square kilometres in the Ross Sea.

The proposal was one of two for marine reserves debated at a special meeting of the 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation on Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The meeting ended overnight in Bremerhaven, Germany.

CCAMLR said member countries would talk about the issue further until the commission's annual meeting in Hobart in October, when the proposal may be discussed again.

The second proposal - from Australia, France and the European Union - is for a cluster of seven marine protected areas in east Antarctica, covering about 1.63m sq km. A consensus of members would be needed for the proposals to succeed.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said he was deeply disappointed by the outcome and he expected international pressure would intensify for the right result.

"I have been very open about how big a challenge it was going to be to achieve a consensus outcome at this special meeting," McCully said.

"I am nevertheless deeply disappointed that an agreed MPA in the Ross Sea region has eluded us.

"Reports from the meeting make it clear that the vast majority of CCAMLR members have been flexible and constructive in seeking consensus."

There was room for reasonable differences about the relative positions of conservation, science and fisheries in a Ross Sea MPA, which had to be resolved through dialogue, he said.

"International pressure for responsible leadership will intensify and New Zealand has every intention of playing its full part in ultimately achieving the right outcome," McCully said.

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance slammed "the loss of an extraordinary opportunity to protect the global marine environment for future generations".

All CCAMLR states, including those that had concerns about the proposals, took part in negotiations that could have achieved a result at the meeting, but the Russian delegation, with support from the Ukraine, raised legal issues as to whether CCAMLR had the authority to establish the sanctuary.

"All members, except Russia, came to this meeting to negotiate in good faith," alliance director Steve Campbell said.

Controversially the Ross Sea MPA would have allowed toothfish fishing, pioneered by New Zealand, to continue in the Ross Sea.

Greenpeace Oceans campaigner Richard Page said the need for the sanctuaries was urgent.

"Considerable effort and some rigorous scientific work have been put in by many CCAMLR members to get this far," Page said.

The head of Germany's CCAMLR delegation, Walter Duebner, said Russia's legal concerns would be addressed in October.

"From the papers Russia presented, and reading between the lines, it appears that they did not want the United States and New Zealand determining which areas could be fished and which couldn't," Duebner said.

The United Nations has committed to classifying 10 per cent of the world's coastal waters and oceans as protected areas by 2020, up from the present 2 per cent. Agreement within CCAMLR at this meeting would have doubled the amount of protected ocean.

Pew Charitable Trust Southern Ocean sanctuaries director Andrea Kavanagh said Russia's legal objection had caught the meeting by surprise and that it amounted to "bad-faith stalling tactics".

She speculated that it was Russia's intention to keep fishing grounds open for the next Antarctic summer (December-February).

Russia would "continue to fish as much as they can, while they can," Kavanagh told The Guardian.