Welcome to the Weddell Sea
WEDDELL SEA MPA
This polar wilderness is best-known as the setting for Shackleton’s dramatic Endurance expedition. Today, wildlife thrives here in some of the most pristine, intact ecosystems on earth.
The Weddell Sea is situated in the Southern Ocean, south of the Atlantic Ocean and east of the Antarctic Peninsula. Along the icebound coastline, penguins cluster in noisy rookeries as Antarctic seabirds wheel overhead. Offshore, seals and whales feed on banquets of krill while, far below, an array of unusual creatures – many of them found nowhere else on earth – thrives on the nutrient-rich seabed. Glass sponges and cold-water corals are but some of the unique creatures that call the Weddell sea floor home.
The Weddell Sea also provides a vital sanctuary for juvenile Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), ice krill (Euphausia crystallorophias), Antarctic silverfish (Pleuragramma antarctica) and Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni). In the shelter of the ice-covered sea, these species hatch, feed and grow to maturity, going on to play an important role in the food web.
WEDDELL SEA MPA
The Weddell Sea is changing rapidly. Warmer, windier weather is affecting sea ice and other ocean habitats, putting pressure on finely balanced ecosystems to adapt. Despite this, the Weddell Sea is not fully protected.
In 2018, Germany proposed the Weddell Sea marine protected area (MPA) to the nations charged with protecting the Southern Ocean. It would offer protection to 790,000 square miles (over 2 million square kilometers) of virtually untouched marine wilderness, including extremely rare and vulnerable polar habitats.
The proposal is the product of years of research. Scientists studied an area more than twice the size of Alaska to identify the regions most in need of protection. If established, the Weddell Sea MPA will be the largest MPA on earth, providing vital protection for polar ecosystems as they adapt to warmer, more acidic oceans due to the climate crisis.
WEDDELL SEA MPA
The proposed Weddell Sea MPA extends from the well-researched waters off the Antarctic Peninsula to the extremely remote, inaccessible Queen Maud Land coast. While some parts of the proposed MPA are well-understood, there are areas we still know very little about.
When the proposal was presented to CCAMLR in 2018, Norway initially withheld its support, calling for more research into the eastern sector. To obtain Norway’s support, the proposal was divided into two zones, or ‘phases’.
The following year, Norway became an official advocate and co-proponent of the Weddell Sea MPA proposal. The proposal now has widespread support, with Australia, the European Union and its Member States, India, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States of America and Uruguay joining as co-proponents.
A phased approach
WEDDELL SEA MPA
The western sector of the proposal, marked yellow on the map, includes coastal areas along the east Antarctic Peninsula, and the Weddell Sea gyre and ice shelves. The boundaries and zoning within this MPA have been extensively researched, and are supported by the best available science.
In the eastern (Maud) sector, shaded blue on the map, CCAMLR Members are conducting ongoing research to develop a clearer understanding of this inaccessible part of the Weddell Sea. Their discoveries will inform the boundaries and zones of special protection in the Phase 2 proposal.
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Securing vital habitats
By creating large zones where human activity is restricted or prevented, MPAs provide refuges for vulnerable species whose habitat may be changing dramatically.
The Weddell Sea and its unique ecosystems are vulnerable to changing conditions as the climate crisis continues.
Emperor penguins, which breed on the surface of the sea ice, are already being impacted by changes in seasonal sea ice. Warmer, windier weather linked to changing global climate patterns is altering sea ice on the Weddell Sea.
In 2019, emperor penguins in Halley Bay abandoned what had been the second-largest emperor colony in Antarctica. After several years of record low sea ice with almost no chicks surviving the breeding season, the population of between 14,000 and 23,000 breeding pairs appeared to have moved to a neighboring colony.
Creating refuges for cold-water wildlife
The Weddell Sea region has been identified as a potential climate refuge for penguins, seals, whales, ice-dependent species and rare cold-water creatures.
As the climate continues to change, a protected Weddell Sea could become a sanctuary where many cold-adapted species can survive and thrive.
Preserving a natural laboratory
The Weddell Sea is one of the few near-pristine ecosystems on the planet. Due to its remoteness and heavy ice cover, limited or no fishing has taken place here, making it an ideal ’natural laboratory’ for future research.
It provides scientists with the unique opportunity to study an untouched ecosystem responding to the climate crisis in the absence of other human interference, such as fishing.
Protecting unknown polar wonders
The Weddell Sea is one of the Earth’s last great wilderness areas, and scientists are still uncovering the mysteries of this remote region. Recent groundbreaking discoveries hint at a vast, unknown and wondrous world hidden below the ice.
Extremophiles beneath the ice
In 2021, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey reported an incredible discovery. While drilling through the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea their cameras detected life, including potentially new species under almost 3000 feet (900 meters) of ice.
They identified sponges and other animals clinging to rocks in complete darkness, hundreds of miles from the open ocean and the nutrients it would provide. This discovery challenged existing assumptions about the outer limits of life, and how it can survive and even thrive in extreme environments.
Watch this short video about the incredible life discovered in the Weddell Sea, thousands of feet below the ice.
World record-breaking nesting grounds
In 2022, while exploring the Weddell Sea seafloor, German researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute came upon the largest known fish nesting area on earth.
What initially appeared to be a small colony of nesting Jonah’s icefish (Neopagetopsis ionah) turned out to be 60 million circular nests spread across the seafloor, each containing an average of 1700 eggs, guarded by a single adult. The nests covered an area of roughly 92 square miles (240 square kilometers), more than twice the size of Paris.
Watch this short video about icefish nests discovered on the 2021 RV Polarstern expedition to the Weddell Sea.
What is permitted in the MPA?
WEDDELL SEA MPA
The proposed Weddell Sea MPA (Phase 1) contains three zones.
The majority of the MPA is designated a General Protection Zone, closed to all commercial fishing. The purpose of this zone is to maintain ecosystem health, boost climate resilience, and create scientific reference areas to improve our understanding of human impacts in Antarctica.
Special Protection Zones marked orange on the map, pinpoint vulnerable and rare habitats such as nesting sites for bottom-dwelling fish and shelf areas where rare, endemic sponges live. All fishing is prohibited in these areas.
The future of fisheries
WEDDELL SEA MPA
Fisheries Research Zones allow fishing for research purposes only. Part of this zone will be closed to all fishing, providing a reference zone for studying the effect of toothfish fishing on the broader ecosystem.
Building our understanding of the population, life-history and ecology of Antarctic toothfish populations will help CCAMLR fulfill its mandate to take a precautionary approach to Antarctic toothfish management.
Now is the time
Weddell Sea MPA
The evidence is clear. Marine protected areas are scientifically proven to be the most effective way to limit the damaging impacts of human activities and support a vibrant, healthy ocean.
ASOC strongly believes that CCAMLR, the international body charged with designating MPAs, has failed to act decisively for too long.
What ASOC is doing
ANTARCTIC PENINSULA MPA
We work for Antarctic marine protection by:
Representing the Antarctic conservation community at the highest levels of Antarctic governance.
Presenting timely, science-based policy proposals at CCAMLR meetings to support decision-making based on the best available science.
Advocating for policies that reduce the stress on Antarctic ecosystems from human activities such as fishing, tourism, and scientific research.
Raising the profile of Antarctic conservation issues, ensuring that they remain on the agenda across international governance systems.