In summer this year, the Arctic Ocean ice melt reached a record high level. Now, with the southern hemisphere summer approaching, scientists’ attention is focused on climate change effects on the Antarctic Ocean. An important issue is the effect melting ice and the subsequent attraction of fishing activities have on the rich bio-diversity of the Antarctic Ocean. The ocean is still relatively less exploited by human activity.Environmentalists have for quite some time now, mooted the idea of creating Marine protected zones (MPAs) — areas where fishing would be restricted and some areas where fishing would be totally banned.

Even as fishing vessels are heading for Antarctic waters this season, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) meeting at Hobart, Australia will be today completing the discussions to reach a consensus on the issue of MPAs for the Antarctic Ocean. At the end of the meeting for proposals would have been considered.

The proposals are by Australia, U.S., New Zealand and the U.K. If the proposals are blocked it would be a major setback for efforts to conserve the Antarctic Ocean’s bio-diversity.

Only one large section of Antarctic waters is currently designated an MPA, an area of about 94,000 square kilometres near the South Orkney Islands.

The United States and New Zealand are now advancing two rival proposals to turn Antarctica’s Ross Sea into one of the world’s largest reserves. The Ross Sea is populated by seals, whales, fish, penguins and other birds.

The US proposal would protect 1.8 million square kilometres, with 800,000 square kilometres totally off-limits to fishing earmarked as a marine reserve in effect as a ‘scientific reference area’ for studying the effects of climate change.

The US proposal currently would allow some krill fishing in one zone and some toothfishing in another zone. The 800,000 square kilometres is the area that the US has identified as being suitable to be designated fully protected marine reserve status.

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA), a coalition of environmental groups, wants the whole reserve to be no-take and so does not support fishing in these zones. AOA supports the U.S.’ stand on the southern zone which has a total ban as it includes much of the slope and shelf of the Ross Sea proper.

“We would like to see that fully protected area being made much larger than the areas proposed in either the US and New Zealand proposals to meet the conservation objectives for the region,” notes Donna Mattfield, European Coordinator, Antarctic Ocean Alliance, in an email to this Correspondent.

New Zealand’s proposal would cover roughly 2.5 million square kilometres, with fishing allowed in some areas. The two countries had once attempted to bring about a joint MPA proposal but could not reach an agreement.

They could not agree over an area in the south of the Ross Sea that the US wants to protect but New Zealand does not. “This was because New Zealand prioritises its own fishing in the area over conservation,” notes Ms Mattfield.

Meanwhile, the UK-led effort is seeking protection for areas exposed by collapsing ice shelves around the Antarctic Peninsula. Newly exposed waters can quickly become populated with animals, making them highly attractive to fishing fleets.

“These areas become new and unique habitats essential to efforts to understand the impacts of climate change and, as such, the UK-led proposal suggests protection from human interference to allow for effective scientific research,” notes Ms Mattfield.

Australia has submitted the fourth proposal, for creating a network of reserves around eastern Antarctica. Australia’s proposal is considered sound by environmentalists. A lot of Antarctica’s biodiversity is at stake, as the negotiations end today in the attempt to reach a consensus on the MPAs.