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Russia, China Block Proposal for New Antarctic Marine Reserves

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In a setback for Antarctic conservation efforts, Russia and China have thwarted the establishment of three new marine protected areas (MPAs) in the region. Members of the multinational Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) failed to reach an agreement on Friday regarding a roadmap for the creation of these sanctuaries, despite years of pursuit.

Cesar Cardenas, a member of the Chilean Antarctic Institute and part of the Chilean delegation, stated that no consensus was achieved and a roadmap for protected areas around Antarctica could not be obtained. The resistance from Russia and China proved to be a major obstacle in advancing the proposal.

The objective of establishing these MPAs was to mitigate the effects of climate change and safeguard fragile ocean ecosystems. The new reserves would have protected an additional area of nearly four million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) from human activities. These regions are vital habitats for various species including penguins, seals, toothfish, whales, and abundant krill populations, which serve as a crucial food source for numerous marine creatures.

The proposed MPAs were planned for three key areas: East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Currently, there are only two existing MPAs in Antarctica, namely the South Orkney Islands MPA, covering 94,000 square kilometers, established in 2009, and the Ross Sea MPA, spanning two million square kilometers, designated in 2016.

Disappointment was expressed by activists in response to the lack of progress. Andrea Kavanagh from the nonprofit organization Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy stated that the special meeting ended similarly to the previous six annual meetings, with two countries blocking the collective will of the other 25 CCAMLR members to establish a network of Southern Ocean MPAs.

China and Russia have consistently impeded the expansion of marine reserves since the proposal was initially put forward by Australia, France, and the European Union in 2010. In 2017, the plan was scaled down in an attempt to gain broader support but was still met with resistance from the two countries.

Antarctica faces substantial threats from global warming, with one of the most significant concerns being the substantial decrease in sea ice caused by climate change. Sea ice plays a critical role in the life cycle of Antarctic krill, making its preservation essential. Rodolfo Werner, scientific and political adviser to the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Coalition (ASOC), emphasized the importance of marine protected areas in safeguarding biodiversity and reducing the pressures of fishing in these vulnerable regions.

Numerous studies have indicated that the melting of the largest glaciers in western Antarctica, which contain a significant amount of water capable of substantially raising sea levels, is irreversible.

The CCAMLR consists of 26 member countries along with the European Union and regulates fisheries in the Antarctic region. Its members include major powers such as the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, India, Japan, as well as host nation Chile, Brazil, and South Africa.

The issue of marine reserves will be revisited at the next CCAMLR meeting scheduled for October in Hobart, Australia.

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