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After five years of protracted negotiations, and tireless ‘Speedo diplomacy’ from endurance swimmer and UN Environment’s Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh, Antarctica’s Ross Sea has finally been declared a Marine Protected Area.
Lewis Pugh is an ocean advocate, a maritime lawyer and an endurance swimmer. He was the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world, and he frequently swims in vulnerable ecosystems to draw attention to their plight. He is a leading figure in efforts to protect our oceans, and UN Environment’s Patron of the Oceans.
The Ross Sea is widely considered to be the last great wilderness area on Earth and known as the polar ‘Garden of Eden’.
At the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), delegates from 24 nations and the European Union voted unanimously to create the world’s largest protected area on land or sea.
“We are thrilled that this very special part of our planet’s oceans has been safeguarded for future generations,” said UN Environment head Erik Solheim. “We are especially proud of our Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh, who shuttled between the nations to help find consensus. Today’s result is a testament to his determined efforts.”
This historic occasion marks the first time a large-scale marine protected area has been established in the High Seas. The 1.57 million square kilometre area – which is larger than the UK, France, Germany and Italy together – will be protected from the kind of industrial fishing that has had devastating effects on other seas around the world.
“The Ross Sea is one of the most pristine marine ecosystems left on Earth, and home to many species found nowhere else,” said US scientist David Ainley, who was the first to call for a marine protected area fourteen years ago.
“The data collected from this ‘living laboratory’ helps us understand the significant changes taking place on Earth right now. The Ross Sea has much more value as an intact marine ecosystem than as a fishing ground.”
The Ross Sea is home to 50 per cent of ecotype-C killer whales (also known as the Ross Sea orca), 40 per cent of Adélie penguins, and 25 per cent of emperor penguins.
“I am overjoyed,” Pugh said. “The Ross Sea is one of the most magnificent places on Earth. It is one of our last great wilderness areas. This is a dream come true.”
For the past two years, Pugh has campaigned tirelessly to protect the region. After undertaking a series of swims in the Ross Sea in February 2015 to draw attention to the issue, Pugh visited Moscow numerous times in an effort to convince Russian officials to endorse the Ross Sea protected area. Until now, Russia had blocked the proposal no less than five times.
The media dubbed Pugh’s efforts ‘Speedo diplomacy’, because of the endurance swimmer’s ability to survive freezing Antarctic waters wearing nothing more than a pair of swimming trunks.
Pugh said, “Today’s announcement marks an important moment in the history of conservation. The High Seas represent 45 per cent of the Earth’s surface. But they are largely unprotected and are facing rampant overfishing. This is a crucial first step in what I hope will be a series of marine protected areas around Antarctica, and in other parts of the High Seas around the world.”
What makes it all the more remarkable, Pugh says, is that Russia, the US, the EU and the other CCAMLR nations shook hands in a time of strained political relations.
“In 1959 at the height of the Cold War, Antarctica was set aside as a place for peace and science,” he said. “Today’s announcement shows that Antarctica continues to be a place for peace and bridge building, a place where we can find common ground. My hope is that what has been achieved here, can be used to foster dialog and cooperation in other parts of the world.”
Sergei Ivanov, President Putin’s Special Representative for Ecology, also welcomed the deal.
“Russia has a proud history of exploration and science in Antarctica,” he said. “In this time of political turbulence in so many parts of the world, we are pleased to be part of this collaborative international effort to safeguard the Ross Sea.”