Battle to preserve the Ross Sea

Emperor Penguin
Emperor Penguin

"It's a powerful place. Very imposing. You have a sense of awe," says Dave Ainley, who has been visiting the Ross Sea since 1968.

Peter Wilson, who hung out the doors of a Hercules taking penguin photos on his first trip, says each October, when the season begins, "I start twitching, like a bird that wants to migrate. I will go back one day".

A bay in northern Antarctica, nearest to New Zealand, the Ross Sea is home to a quarter of the world's emperor penguins, a third of all adelie penguins, all manner of seals, whales, fish and sea birds.

It is, scientists like Ainley and Wilson say, the last remaining almost untouched paradise.

Like the rest of the Antarctic, the Ross is protected by a 25-nation alliance which includes New Zealand.

But in 1996 the first fishing boats came crashing through the ice in search of the Antarctic toothfish, which, when renamed Chilean sea bass, sells for $600 apiece to American supermarkets.

Scientists say this has upset Earth's last "living laboratory", the only place where the eco-system hasn't been unbalanced by man. And those first boats came from New Zealand.

So now the campaign to save this final frontier is being spearheaded in this country by those who believe it's our job to fix the problem we caused.

Peter Young's first Ross Sea experience was 25 years ago, when he was hired to work as an itinerant dishwasher at McMurdo Station.

He too was entranced, but didn't return until wildlife photographer John Weller invited him on a trip six years ago to film the Ross's abundant wildlife.

After eight days' travel he spent his third child's first Christmas filming a penguin colony. He didn't know it then, but that footage would form the core of The Last Ocean, a new documentary Young and his allies hope will be a vital propaganda tool in the fight to convince Antarctica's guardians that Ross Sea fishing must end.

"I could see the huge challenge that lay ahead in protecting the Ross Sea," says Young, a veteran Christchurch film-maker.

"And I felt that if we couldn't do that, I wanted the world, at least, to know... what we are destroying for such little gain."

The past six years have been dedicated to the film, released next month, and on an accompanying trust of the same name. Young even appears in it, briefly.

"I've never been out there waving the flag, or standing up for any issue," he says.

"This is the first I have felt strongly enough about to take me from behind the camera."

In October, given plenty of time to digest Young's work, a group of scientists and bureaucrats will convene to consider the Ross Sea's future.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, is the multinational coalition which governs the waters of the Antarctic.

It was CCAMLR which heard a proposal by New Zealand companies and first allowed the Ross to be fished. Long-serving Kiwi diplomat Stuart Prior - subsequently our ambassador to Russia - was involved in that decision.

Prior said he consulted widely, thought deeply and advocated a "precautionary approach of slow, measured, step-by-step activities, based on the best scientific research" with an initial five-year limited, exploratory phase.

Wilson, who now chairs the Last Ocean trust but was then a Landcare researcher seconded to Prior's team, was strongly against, arguing it was a grave error.

But the fishery quickly became much more than Prior planned, opened to all CCAMLR countries and turned into what's called an Olympic fishery, where boats race each other during a two-month summer window between the ice sheets to catch an approved quota.

"I'm personally so disappointed the way fishing has turned out," he says.

"It is certainly not what we envisaged." Prior says the world has since changed, it is time to stop, and New Zealand must "show some steel in our spine" and take the lead.

New Zealand and the US say they will table new plans at this year's CCAMLR meeting for wide-ranging marine protection areas (MPAs) in Antarctic waters, including the Ross Sea.

But there are key differences between these proposals and what the Last Ocean and a worldwide network of scientists and environmental groups want, including the size of the MPAs and the restrictions on toothfishing.

Crucially, New Zealand hasn't demanded an end to toothfishing, and instead supports plans to fish stocks down to 50 per cent of their original levels.

Ainley, Last Ocean's leading scientific adviser, says these plans are "more for show than for actual protection of the eco-system". Talking to the Sunday Star-Times from a scientific conference in Portland, Oregon, he sounds tired, worn by the fight. He says the

proposal is "designed not to perturb the fishing industry", and includes huge chunks of ocean which don't need protection because they are impassable and thus unfishable, but ignores other vital areas.

America's CCAMLR commissioner, Evan Bloom, told the Star-Times the US was "actively working" to establish a Ross Sea MPA: "We look forward to working with New Zealand and other nations to prepare to take action on such a proposal at CCAMLR's next meeting. Our hope is to be able to table a joint proposal with New Zealand, and we are working to that end."

Ainley suspects the US wants a more dynamic approach but has deferred leadership to New Zealand and is being held back by our conservatism.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully's office said he couldn't talk to the Star-Times because of travel commitments. McCully is briefly interviewed in the film, saying he has met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and directed officials to produce a joint plan. Young says McCully understands the issue and sees him as open-minded enough to be swayed by public opinion.

But I ask Ainley if this is a battle they may lose. He pauses. "I guess so," he says. Even if the New Zealand proposal is adopted, he would consider it a "very shallow victory".

While CCAMLR is a consensus-based body where all 25 nations hold theoretic equal weight, New Zealand punches significantly above the standard because of our proximity, Antarctic history, longstanding operations at Scott Base and original claims on the area. And Ainley hopes the green-minded Kiwi public has some power.

"The New Zealand public, in my observation, is far more aware than the US public.

"And with New Zealand being small, I think people have a much greater impact on the flavour of their country."

He believes other countries hide behind New Zealand's moderate voice and would be forced into real debate if our position hardened.

But Wellington economist Geoff Simmons, who works for Gareth Morgan's personal foundation, says the Last Ocean Trust is "a little unrealistic" and could score a political own-goal if it forces New Zealand into a tougher plan which might be rejected by other nations.

After Morgan led a trip to the Ross Sea earlier this year, he directed Simmons to work fulltime on the issue, and the pair have authored several incendiary columns, branding the Last Ocean group "green-necks".

"We disagree on tactics," Simmons says.

"The extreme solution they are proposing risks, in our view, blowing the whole thing out of the water. We'd have to consider ourselves very lucky and it to be a huge achievement if New Zealand pulls off what it is proposing."

Ironically, Morgan and Simmons are also about to embark on a roadshow promoting Ice, Mice and Men, a book they've written about the Antarctic - a tour near-simultaneous with Young's own circuit promoting his film.

The Last Ocean Trust, says Wilson, isn't interested in pragmatism. In its view, the Government's job is to negotiate and the trust's role is to maintain pressure for the right solution. Anyway, he believes the issue won't be resolved this year: consensus is "bloody hard".

"They say they are committed to doing it; so let's see." Meanwhile, the boats will rumble through the ice again this summer.

WHEN THE spring semester ends at Auckland University, marine biologist Clive Evans packs his bags for McMurdo Sound, in the southern Ross Sea, where for the past 12 years he has studied toothfish, long-lining them through ice-holes for research purposes. Since 2001, his team has charted a "precipitous" decline in numbers - last year they fished for 490 hours for one single catch.

Professor Evans says his findings, however small-scale, suggest an 80 per cent decline in stocks. The industry's own studies, says New Zealand Seafood Industry Council's chief executive Peter Bodecker, including tagging, acoustic surveys and "catch effort" - how long it takes to catch a fish - suggest the decline is a sustainable 20 per cent.

Simmons dismisses Evans' findings as irrelevant, too small to figure against the industry numbers and other work by Niwa's lead scientist Stuart Hanchett, which show plenteous stocks.

But Evans says you can't simply dismiss his findings.

"There is a degree of uncertainty here: let's sort it out. You have to look at the data we've got, try to mesh it into what the industry has been producing and understand what it means. Maybe the data is telling us something, maybe it is a warning. So why don't we hold back here and get some more information?"

There are plenty of uncertainties about this well-travelled fish. While Hanchett has said we know more of the toothfish than most commercially fished stocks, Evans counterclaims we know almost nothing about it: how often it breeds, how many eggs it lays, when and where it does, even its natural lifespan.

Unsurprisingly, the fishing industry doesn't like the idea of a Ross Sea shut-out. Bodecker describes a tightly regulated, well-managed fishery which has led to new innovation, better boats and more stringent environmental conditions, which Kiwi crews have brought back to home waters.

It's a $20 million to $30m a year industry of which, historically, our boats have claimed about 46 per cent.

The Last Ocean has called for a unilateral Kiwi withdrawal to shame other nations into halting fishing in the Ross. But Bodecker says it "wouldn't be unreasonable" to suggest that without Kiwi boats involved, standards would drop. "We believe we are being good stewards," he says.

Young doesn't want to fight the fishing industry and says he recognises its concerns, but argues the industry simply shouldn't be there. Put simply, reduce the toothfish stock, and you mess with everything else.

So although the ugly, mottled toothfish is a tough PR sell - although fascinating to its fans, such as Evans, who has spent years studying how it creates its own anti-freeze to survive in minus 1.9 degrees Celsius waters - its fate duly affects those cuddly adelies and weddell seals.

Because with the rest of the world's oceans irrevocably altered, scientists see the Ross as the last place where they can see the world as it was before man interfered.

"For God's sake, don't do anything to it, just watch it: it is a huge tool for mankind," says Wilson.

"It's something we can pass down to our children's children and say this is what it should look like."

Bodecker and Simmons both point to historic whaling and sealing in the Ross to deny Last Ocean's contention that this is the last untouched paradise. "It is being used for commercial activities, science, tourism," says Bodecker. "It is not untouched."

Yes, says Young, there has been whaling and sealing, but nowhere near as much as anywhere else.

With no historic human habitation, little pollution, no invasive species and until now, no fishing, this is the best we've got.

"We could argue about the pristine qualities, but it is the closest thing we have on Earth," says Young.

The Last Ocean has joined an international coalition called the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, which involves Greenpeace, WWF, and celebrity backers such as Richard Branson and Ted Danson, and Ainley co-ordinates Forse (Friends of the Ross Sea Ecosystem), a worldwide group of concerned scientists. They hope the film offers a final kick.

"What happens when you get overwhelming public support for something like this, what is the next step?" asks Wilson.

"Do you have to get a powerful lobbyist within Government?"

What they do have is Young, who will embark on his nationwide tour with a plea to his audience to write to their MP and ask for change.

"This has been a labour of love. I was compelled to do it. What has driven me was my time in the Ross Sea," he says.

"I am under no illusion of the huge challenge ahead. The only thing that will make the difference is the public, because the Government will do what public wants in the end. Democracy works."

The Last Ocean premieres on August 1 at SkyCity Theatre as part of the New Zealand Film Festival, then tours nationwide.

Sunday Star Times