Cold War in Warming Waters: The Uncertain Prospects of Marine Protection

An Adelie Penguin and the HMS Protection in Cape Evans of the Ross Sea.
An Adelie Penguin and the HMS Protection in Cape Evans of the Ross Sea.

On October 28th, 2016, and after five years of failed negotiations, the 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) signed an international agreement establishing a Marine Protection Area (MPA) in the Ross Sea. The signature of the agreement, which took place at the 35th meeting of the CCAMLR in Hobart, Australia, has been generally acclaimed as a milestone for international cooperation on matters of environmental protection and climate policy. It is indeed the first MPA to be created in international waters, and, as such, it is believed to set a significant precedent for further advances towards international cooperation on matters of marine wildlife and resource protection. However, it seems that this bout of success will inevitably be short-lived, as geopolitics ultimately override the CCAMLR’s professed ‘science-based’ decision-making. Environmental protection policy-making is bound to be determined by geopolitics so long as the ‘environmental turn’ in international cooperation is not taken. Political deadlock continues to delay and dilute much-needed policy, which is particularly distressing considering the alarming pace of climate change.

The Ross Sea MPA.

Located in the area of the Antarctic Ocean claimed by New Zealand, the Ross Sea is one of the last oceanic regions considered as “near-pristine and unaffected by human activities.” It is threatened by climate change impacts such as temperature changes and subsequent alterations of fauna and flora, acidification, as well as an increase of commercial fishing as resources in other oceans of the world are dramatically depleted.

The Southern summer bloom provides essential nutrients to the Ross Sea wildlife.
The Southern summer bloom provides essential nutrients to the Ross Sea wildlife.

With the newly created MPA, no less than 1.55 million square kilometres of the Antarctic Ocean’s marine ecosystems will gain protection from commercial fishing, oil exploration, and other commercial exploration for 35 years. Protecting this area in particular is crucial given that the Ross Sea, despite comprising only of 3,3% of the Southern Ocean, provides a habitat for more than 10,000 species, including 38% of the world’s Adelie penguin population, 26% of Emperor penguins, 30% of Antarctic petrels, and 6% of Antarctic minke whales. The Ross Sea is also crucial as a region where key nutrients from deep waters are carried on currents around the world’s oceans.


Established by international treaty in 1982, the CCAMLR is a multilateral and consensus-based organisation consisting of 25 members: 24 states (including Australia, the US, China, and Russia), and the European Union have joined the Commission due to their economic interests in fishing, their interests in scientific research, or both. The chair of the Commission Meetings rotates biannually among the 25 members. Significantly, the 35th meeting of the CCAMLR was chaired by Russia, under the leadership of Vasily Titushkin. Of the three high-priority MPAs under negotiation this year – in the Ross Sea, in the East Antarctic, and in the Weddell Sea – only one has been able to reach consensus and has thus been signed.

Negotiations and Geopolitics.

Since the U.S. and New Zealand joint proposal for a Ross Sea MPA in 2011, up to this 35th meeting of the CCAMLR, Russia has consistently blocked conservation proposals while other delegates revised proposals in an attempt to reach compromise and consensus. In order to explain the Russian continued obstructionist position and abrupt change of stance, arguments have emphasized that the main sticking point of the protracted negotiations lies in the onerous fishing restrictions on fishing states. Indeed, the Ross Sea is host to species of krill and patagonian toothfish, highly lucrative for the economies of Russia, China, South Korea, Norway, and Japan.

Common explanations have also relied on picturesque developments such as ‘Speedo diplomacy’ and the notion of a Russian ‘environmental glasnost’. ‘Speedo diplomacy’ refers to the actions of UN Patron for the Oceans Lewis Pugh, who has drawn attention to the Ross Sea and the political deadlock surrounding the creation of its MPA through a series of swims in the icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean. Emerging discourses on Russia’s ‘environmental glasnost’ have also been included in common accounts of the negotiations’ repeated failures and sudden success. There have indeed been indications of a movement towards environmental awareness “coming from high up in the Putin government”: 2017 has been designated as the Year of Ecology, Putin’s former Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov has been appointed Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport, and the Arctic MPA around Franz Josef Land has been expanded.

However, these explanations have remained superficial at best, if not naïve. Although they highlight factors that must have some bearing on the negotiations’ outcome, they fail to acknowledge the primordial influence of the geopolitical context. Representative of this candour is the head of the US delegation Evan Bloom’s statement that “science can trump politics.”

Three geopolitical factors have been identified as primordial in determining environmental conservation and protection success: first is the existence of an open political window of opportunity, second is trust between negotiating actors, and third is the alignment of incentives among member states and organizations. In that perspective, many have pointed to US-Russia tensions in Ukraine, the South China Sea, and the Middle East acting as barriers to interstate collaboration in the MPA creation process. Only with shifting geopolitical factors has the CCAMLR been able to benefit from a critical window of opportunity for the signature of the Ross Sea MPA. The Commission remains however dominated by states whose positions reflect economic interests in fishing and geopolitical interests in power-assertion and security-maximization. Ultimately, geopolitics supersede the professed ‘science-based’ decision-making of the CCAMLR.

The British Antarctic Survey will continue its hydrographic research in the Ross Sea MPA to measure climate change.
The British Antarctic Survey will continue its hydrographic research in the Ross Sea MPA.

The primacy of geopolitics is reflected in the specificity of the international agreement establishing the Ross Sea MPA. Indeed, the agreement’s protection of the marine living resources has been significantly diluted by the compromises deemed necessary for the attainment of consensus. First, the fishing prohibition has been replaced by a general protection of marine life habitats – a term open to wider interpretation. Second, the question of enforcement is left unresolved. Third, and most important, as Brooks et al. have noted, negotiations were marred by temporal concessions in ‘sunset clauses’. As a result, the agreement stipulates that the protections are set to expire in 35 years, revealing the significant compromises that have been brokered to satisfy the fishing states of the CCAMLR led by Russia and China. This expiry-date also means that the Ross MPA, as it currently stands, does not meet the standard World Conservation Union definition of a marine protected area, as this requires protection to be permanent.

Future Prospects; the Realities of International Cooperation on Environmental Protection and Climate Policy.

This analysis and the inferences drawn from it bear significance regarding the future of environmental and natural resources protection policy-making, as well as for climate policy at large. Success in the creation of the Ross Sea MPA has been attained largely due to a favourable alignment of primordial geopolitical variables, and at the price of considerable dilution of the environmental protection granted by the agreement. Whether this alignment of circumstances will hold in the future seems unlikely.

This is why one should not candidly interpret this instance of interstate cooperation as a step towards environmental prioritization in international cooperation. Rather, one should see how environment and climate policy in general remain largely dictated by traditional balance-of-power dynamics.

Until an ‘environmental turn’ in interstate cooperation is taken, environmental protection and climate policy will remain contingent upon geopolitical constellations and their favourable alignment for any advances. As desirable as it is, such an ‘environmental turn’ in international cooperation has not effectively been taken, which is particularly alarming given the increasing rates at which climate change alters natural resources and ecosystems.