Antarctica’s Ross Sea became Friday the world’s largest marine protected area after 24 nations agreed for the first time to establish a reserve outside of any country’s jurisdiction.

Russia and China had been reluctant after the United States and New Zealand proposed to make this part of the Antarctica a protected area but they finally joined the project. This sea is within the Southern Ocean, a largely intact marine ecosystem. After years of negotiations, the U.S., Russia, China, New Zealand and members of the European Union reached the unanimous deal at a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) that took place in Hobart, Australia.

Ross Sea, Antarctica
As a consequence of the landmark, historical agreement, fishing activity will be banned in the 1.6 million square kilometers (620,000 square miles) zone. Russian vessels which had been catching Antarctic toothfish in the now protected area will not be able to do it anymore. Image credit: The Huffington Post.

The agreement will take effect in December 2016, and 72 percent of the marine reserve will forbid fishing while other sections will allow harvesting of fish and krill for scientific purposes. Researchers will be able to study the impact of areas where fishing activity is banned and compare it with other zones where fishing is permitted, the commission said.

By doing so, scientists will have access to valuable data they will use to understand better the range of variables that play a significant role in the health of marine ecosystems.

A statement from the United Nations Environment Program said that this Antarctic sea is home to 50 percent of Ross Sea orca, 25 percent of emperor penguins, and 40 percent of Adélie penguins, as reported by National Public Radio. The statement remarked that the Ross Sea is “the last great wilderness area on Earth,” widely known as the polar “Garden of Eden.”

Mike Walker, project director at the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, told Deutsche Welle’s Dave Keating that the sanctuary that covers an area twice the size of Texas is part of an ecosystem that hasn’t been affected by the same human-made degradation as the rest of the ocean.

Walker suggested it was the healthiest ecosystem on Earth. Also a campaigner for marine protection in Europe, he explained that the Southern Ocean is crucial as it pumps nutrients and fuels currents vital to the Antarctic Ocean.

A place for peace and science

U.N. Environment’s Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh called the decision a “remarkable” agreement reached at a time of “strained political relations”, according to NPR. He noted that the Antarctica was considered as a place for peace at the height of the Cold War in 1959, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. agreed to preserve it for humanity, and for science. This landmass is so special because it is the only one on this blue planet that has no owner.

“Today’s announcement shows that Antarctica continues to be a place for peace and bridge building, a place where we can find common ground. My hope is that what has been achieved here, can be used to foster dialog and cooperation in other parts of the world,” Pugh expressed, as quoted by NPR.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this “extraordinary progress” has been strategically achieved after years of steady scientific and policy review, as well as intense conversations, according to NPR. He added that the nations involved acknowledged that they all share the responsibility to protect that area for the generations to come.

The Ross Sea sanctuary is the second marine protected area located on the high seas only after the South Orkney Islands, established in 2009 in the south Atlantic. Walker noted that 70 percent of ocean in the blue planet is high sea that doesn’t belong to any country.

Future international efforts to protect more marine areas

When asked whether new areas will be protected by international agreements, Walker told the Deutsche Welle that France and Australia made a proposal in 2011 to protect an area in the East Antarctic and that the most recent proposal was made by Germany for the Weddell Sea. He said that a decision on the East Antarctic might be announced next year and that Germany’s proposal would have a significant progress in the coming months.

Walker pointed out that although he hoped to hear future announcements of new protected areas, Friday, Oct. 28, would be a huge day to remember because it was the very first time nations agreed to create a large marine protected area located in the high seas. The fact that the zone doesn’t belong to any country’s jurisdiction makes the deal really special as it reveals that nations do care about it.

Ross Sea, Antarctica
Icebergs at the Ross Sea. Image credit: Beyond Endurance Expedition.

Source: NPR