Despite being the coldest region on the planet, the Antarctic supports a huge array of life. Whales migrate thousands of miles to gorge on swarms of tiny krill. The seafloor is home to creatures like corals and sea stars, with new species discovered on a regular basis. Huge colonies of penguins breed on land and hunt in the sea, surviving the dark Antarctic winters by huddling together.
This remote part of the world already has some protection and Greenpeace has played a big part in that. The Antarctic Treaty made the continent off-limits to military activity, but said nothing about oil drilling or mining. In the 1980s, Greenpeace campaigned to create ‘World Park Antarctica’, even setting up a scientific base. We won, and in 1991 the continent of Antarctica was protected from exploitation.
There are also protected areas at sea. The Ross Sea Marine Protected Area is the largest ocean sanctuary in the world. But over the last few years, international talks have stalled and huge areas of the Antarctic Ocean are still unprotected.
Melting ice and disappearing krill
As in the Arctic, climate change is having a greater impact on the Antarctic than other parts of the world. The southern latitudes are warming three times faster than elsewhere and glaciers are melting faster than they form, raising global sea levels. Less sea ice means penguins have to swim further to find food.
It’s one of the smallest ocean creatures that we should perhaps be most concerned about. Krill are tiny crustaceans, a bit like shrimp, which are vital for almost all Antarctic life. They provide food for many other species, including blue whales, humpback whales and Adélie penguins. Even if an animal doesn’t eat krill, it will eat something that does.
Climate change is causing problems for krill as well. They depend on the edges of the sea ice for food and shelter. Less ice means fewer areas in which krill can thrive. And as the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, the water is becoming more acidic and krill struggle to develop properly.
The fishing industry has also targeted krill. Krill oil is being sold as a health supplement and vast numbers of krill were being caught to feed demand. But after huge pressure from Greenpeace supporters, almost every company in the krill fishing industry committed to avoid trawling in sensitive Antarctic waters. They even pledged support for a global network of ocean sanctuaries.
And it’s ocean sanctuaries that will do most to protect the Antarctic Ocean. Greenpeace has campaigned for one covering huge areas of the Antarctic, in the Weddell Sea. At 1.8 million square kilometres, it would be the largest protected area on Earth. Sadly, governments with a say on how the Antarctic is managed failed to step up and create the sanctuary so far. That doesn’t mean it’s over. A new global ocean treaty is being discussed by the UN. If that happens, the door is open to a massive network of sanctuaries covering one-third of the world’s ocean.
With that in place, we can protect the Antarctic Ocean along with the rest of our blue planet.