The Ross Sea: A Refuge for Marine Life and for Science
The Ross Sea is one of the last remaining stretches of ocean on Earth that has not been harmed by human activity. It is yet to be damaged extensively by overfishing, pollution or invasive species. The world now has a rare opportunity to protect the Ross Sea from a growing number of threats by declaring the continental shelf and slope of the Ross Sea a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Over 500 scientists have signed a statement calling for extensive protection for the Ross Sea. View the signatories here, and read more about the efforts of scientists to protect the Ross Sea here. E-mail us to add your name to the statement. We are looking for scientists with a master's degree, PhD, or equivalent. Click here to read about efforts by the Antarctic Ocean Alliance to create a marine reserve for the Ross Sea.
Why should we protect the Ross Sea?
The Ross Sea has incredible biological diversity and a long history of human exploration and scientific research. Marine life is as abundant now as it was thousands of years ago, and a recent scientific study (Halpern et al. 2008) determined that the region has the lowest level of disturbance from human activities among the world's oceans. It is important that it be protected from activities that would disrupt this last refuge for open-ocean marine life and scientific research to better understand how marine systems were before human exploitation. View a report on the scientific basis for the uniqueness of the Ross Sea.
Why is the Ross Sea so important to scientists?
The Ross Sea has the longest history of scientific research in the Southern Ocean. This means that scientists have data beginning 170 years ago, and continuous records going back over 50 years. Having reliable data for long periods of time helps scientists to draw more accurate conclusions and better understand environmental and ecological changes, particularly in the field of climate research.
Why is the Ross Sea ecologically unique?
The Ross Sea provides a habitat for a diverse array of benthic and mid-water species, but most importantly, unlike all other portions of the world ocean, its top predators are still abundant. Its whale, seal and fish populations have yet to be extensively exploited and their numbers are high. Furthermore, although the Ross Sea encompasses less than 13% of the circumference of Antarctica, and just 3.3% of the area of the Southern Ocean, it provides habitat for significant populations of many animals, including 38% of the world’s Adélie penguins, 26% of Emperor penguins, more than 30% of Antarctic petrels, 6% of Antarctic minke whales, and perhaps more than 30% of “Ross Sea” killer whales. Moreover, it has the richest diversity of fishes in the high latitude Southern Ocean, including seven species found nowhere else, with an evolutionary radiation equivalent to the Galapagos, the African rift lakes, and Lake Baikal, all designated as World Heritage Sites for their exemplary fauna. Any alteration of the food web or degradation of habitat will have the same damaging effects that have been documented elsewhere on Earth, such as toxic algal blooms, oxygen-deprived dead zones and jellyfish invasions. The Ross Sea is also considered the most productive area in the entire Southern Ocean. Many species therefore depend upon it for food.
What will happen if the Ross Sea isn't declared an MPA? Aren't there environmental laws concerning Antarctica already in place?
Although relatively remote and inaccessible by ship for most of the year, the Ross Sea is drawing more interest from commercial interests, particularly commercial fishers. Worldwide, fish stocks have declined dramatically, and the Ross Sea's abundant toothfish populations are therefore increasingly attractive. Unfortunately, marine environmental problems often occur in ocean areas under active management and regulation. It is not unreasonable to think that the Ross Sea could experience the same problems as a result of commercial activity, even with management. Because it can be extremely difficult to reverse environmental and ecosystem damage, designating the Ross Sea an MPA, before it is damaged, is the best way to prevent these problems. Designation also ensures that this "living laboratory" remains unchanged and thus ideal for scientific research.
Currently, the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) governs fisheries in the Southern Ocean, including those of the Ross Sea. While this group has developed many seemingly sensible environmental regulations, in reality nobody knows if their management plans for Ross Sea toothfish are sustainable in the long term.
The Ross Sea’s main commercially valuable fish species is toothfish, sometimes called Chilean sea bass. This slow-growing species takes eight years to reach reproductive maturity, and can live for fifty years. Though it may seem counterintuitive, toothfish have developed an evolutionary strategy in which most of their young are eaten by predators, while the survivors will have few predators and therefore reproduce many times. Since fishing targets the largest specimens, however, it targets those older fish that are most actively reproducing, leading to dramatic decreases in population over a short time. Toothfish fisheries have collapsed elsewhere and are no longer commercially valuable for precisely this reason.
Unfortunately, CCAMLR’s management plans do not adequately address this problem. Current CCAMLR plans for the expansion of the toothfish fishery will reduce the population to 50% of its current size within 35 years. No one knows if a long-lived species such as toothfish can sustain this level of harvesting. Additionally, illegal fishing is rampant in the Southern Ocean and renders population estimates and catch limits essentially meaningless.
ASOC believes that the unique features of the Ross Sea merit comprehensive protection. Even if toothfish harvesting is sustainable with respect to the toothfish population, reducing the population by 50% will alter the ecosystem significantly. Only declaring the Ross Sea a Marine Protected Area will preserve this stunningly beautiful region.
ASOC is pleased to work with National Geographic's Mission Blue and the Last Ocean Charitable Trust on promoting the Ross Sea MPA.