May 10, 2017

Story: Unprecedented Marine Protection in the Antarctic

By Sara Worden

In early October 2016, Stanford doctoral student Cassandra Brooks and Center for Ocean Solutions Science Director Larry Crowder published a policy article in thejournal Science entitled “Science-based management in decline in the Southern Ocean.”The timing was strategic; just days after the paper was published, the Commission forthe Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the multi-nationalbody for international fisheries management in the Antarctic, convened their annualmeeting.  For the sixth time since 2012, the proposed Ross Sea and East Antarcticmarine protected areas (MPAs) were brought to the table for consideration. After years of international negotiations, and countless efforts from the international science community, local and global conservation organizations, and ultimately the consensus of the 24 nation States that comprise CCAMLR, Brooks saw the work she had dedicated more than ten years of her life to come to fruition: CCAMLR voted to establish the Ross Sea MPA creating the largest MPA in the world.

When Brooks first visited Antarctica in 2006 as a graduate student researching the lifehistory of Ross Sea toothfish, a large, predatory fish known as the “shark” of theSouthern Ocean, she knew she’d stumbled upon a special place. Deemed the “last ocean” because of the intact, healthy ecosystem that the Ross Sea supports, its remoteness has, up until relatively recently, protected the marine resources found there from human exploitation. Yet, depletion of fish stocks in much of the global ocean has forced fishermen to look elsewhere for lucrative fisheries, and is pushing many of them further and further into the wild, icy Southern Ocean in search of tooth fish,marketed as the lucrative “Chilean Sea Bass” in restaurants worldwide. When Brooks heard reports of fishing boats venturing into the Ross Sea she was shocked and concerned. “It’s icy and cold and extremely hard to get to,” Brooks said on a recent recording of the podcast Speak up for Blue. “I realized how bad off we were in terms of the oceans that fishing vessels were getting pushed further and further into the Southern Ocean to find healthy fish stocks.” Shock soon turned to action, and Brooks joined her now husband, photographer John Weller, in the Last Ocean Project with the goal of providing a “lens to the Antarctic” so the rest of the world could experience the beauty and grandeur of the landscape, animals, and habitats of the Ross Sea to understand what was at stake. Her work on toothfish, which revealed some of the potential vulnerabilities of this species to overfishing, coupled with her experience as a science communicator on the Last Ocean Project, inspired Brooks to dedicate her dissertation work at Stanford towards understanding and influencing the policy process of protecting the Ross Sea. Brooks’, Crowder’s, and their co-author’s policy piece in Science aimed at making CCAMLR accountable for what they were established to do: conserve the unique ecosystems of the Southern Ocean. “Our research showed that CCAMLR’s conservation decisions had become entangled with larger global geopolitics as many nations began to scramble for marine resources in this remote frontier,” says Brooks. “The result was a breakdown of trust between CCAMLR member nations, causing a stalemate over MPAs,” adds Crowder. Their paper carefully laid out five recommendations regarding marine conservation in the Antarctic for CCAMLR to consider during their annual meeting. It took 10 years of outreach and scientific planning and five previous proposals considered by CCAMLR, before the largest MPA in the world was established in the Ross Sea, just three weeks before Brooks’ PhD defense.  Brooks and Weller were in the CCAMLR meeting when the Ross Sea protection was announced. “I had never seen such positive energy in the room as there was that night,”says Brooks. “We have been a part of history.” Meeting participants burst into applause after the announcement.  Many embraced and shed tears, including Brooks and Weller, showing how unprecedented the adoption of the Ross Sea MPA and the collaborative efforts leading up to it truly were.“The Ross Sea and the Southern Ocean are part of the global commons, they belong to everyone,” says Brooks. “ Protecting this place for the world is pretty significant, and has restored my hope that we can find the political will to do these amazing things for the planet.”

Header Photo Credit: John B. Weller