17, Jul, 2014

New Report Calls for Protection of the Weddell Sea Region

Category: Antarctic Ocean Alliance

As part of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance’s (AOA) proposal to designate marine protected areas (MPA) and marine reserves across 19 regions around Antarctica, the AOA today launched its new report titled  Antarctic Ocean Legacy: Towards Protection of the Weddell Sea Region. The findings of the report aim to contribute towards ongoing scientific and policy work - currently led by Germany and Russia - on the region, which is located south of the Atlantic Ocean. The Weddell Sea region is renowned for having one of the most intact ecosystems left on earth and for being a major engine of global ocean circulation.

“Recognising the ecological importance of the Weddell Sea, Germany in collaboration with Russia, is leading the process that will bring about the protection of this crucial area. AOA supports this collaboration and welcomes Russia’s commitment to implementing marine protected areas,” said Steve Campbell, AOA Campaign Director.


By providing protection for the areas highlighted in the new AOA report, as well as through the application of the precautionary approach, the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) would effectively preserve areas that collectively capture a wide and representative range of species, habitats and ecosystems in the Weddell Sea region - from the top of the water column to the seafloor, and including key biodiversity hotspots.

“Large, fully protected marine reserves are essential to ensure that the incredible biodiversity of the Weddell Sea remains intact,” said Andrea Kavanagh, who directs Antarctic marine reserve work for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“The commission’s member countries have a duty to establish comprehensive protections for Antarctic waters, but they have not been able to designate the Ross Sea and East Antarctic reserves despite years of meetings and discussions.  We welcome the collaboration between Germany and Russia on the Weddell Sea proposal and hope this signals a break in the logjam at the commission meeting this October.”

Ice-bound, wild and remote, the Weddell Sea has often been inaccessible to humans, but as research has increased over the past few decades, a picture of a vibrant marine ecosystem - sustained by a combination of currents, seafloor features and ice - has emerged. 

“Protecting the Weddell Sea in a network of large-scale marine reserves will help krill populations and higher predators like whales, seals and Emperor penguins to continue thriving. It will also help ensure that the region remains resilient in the face of ocean acidification, climate change and increased fishing interests,” said Bob Zuur, manager of WWF’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean Initiative.

Climate Change

In addition, the report identifies the Weddell Sea as a region that is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and ocean acidification and notes examples of changes which are already occurring, including a sharp contrast between the western and eastern sectors. The western sector adjacent to the West Antarctic Peninsula, considered as one of the fastest warming areas on the planet, is experiencing both warming conditions and decreasing sea ice.  The eastern sector, however, is experiencing growing sea ice over the past few decades, contributing significantly to the general increase in Southern Ocean sea ice extent.

"Creating new MPAs in important ecosystems such as the Weddell Sea is part of the critical pathway forward needed to sustain a resilient Southern Ocean, providing Antarctica  with much needed support in the face of climate change predictions,” said Mark Epstein, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) Executive Director.

The Road to CCAMLR

The AOA urges States party to the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resource (CCAMLR) to designate large-scale, permanent and ecologically diverse MPAs in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea in 2014 and for Russia and Germany to submit a strong proposal for MPAs in the Weddell Sea for consideration in 2015. These will be critical, visionary and timely steps towards creating a network of MPAs and no-take marine reserves in the Southern Ocean, in line with CCAMLR’s previous commitments.

“AOA hopes that Russia’s engagement in the Weddell Sea process suggests renewed Russian leadership on the East Antarctica and Ross Sea proposals as well,” continued Campbell.


Fully-Protected Marine Reserves are areas that are off limits to all extractive uses, including fishing. Fully-protected Marine reserves provide the highest level of protection to all elements of the ocean ecosystem. 

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas where certain activities are limited or prohibited to meet specific conservation, habitat protection or fisheries management objectives.

Consensus-based decision-making does not mean that everyone must agree, but that no one can voice disagreement, which means that one member state can effectively stop a measure from going forward.


Antarctic Ocean Legacy: Towards Protection of the Weddell Sea Region

Life in the Weddell Sea:

  • Several species of whales and dolphins and six species of seals are found in the Weddell Sea, as well as a diversity of fish and seabirds. Even at depths of 6,000 metres, life has been found, underscoring the incredible diversity of life in the region.

  • Despite being a harsh environment, the Weddell Sea seafloor hosts many diverse habitats. It is home to many hundreds of invertebrate species. Two hundred and thirty different species of amphipods can be found on the eastern Weddell Sea continental shelf alone.

  • More sponges are known from the Weddell Sea than any other location of the Southern Ocean contributing up to 96% of the biomass in undisturbed areas of the eastern Weddell Sea continental shelf representing hundreds of different species.

  • Communities containing sponges, bryozoans, cnidarians, and ascidians are found in abundance along the shelf of the south-eastern Weddell Sea and Lazarev Sea along the Queen Maud Land – Lazarev Sea Coastal Zone

  • Levels of diversity for some organisms including isopods (crustaceans like woodlice or pill bugs), bivalves and gastropods were found to be comparable to tropical and temperate regions.


  • Fishing in the Weddell Sea MPA planning region occurs in the CCAMLR statistical subdivisions 48.5 and 48.6. Longline fishing began in the Weddell Sea MPA planning region off the Queen Maud Land – Lazarev Sea Coastal Zone in 1997, but has occurred only recently in the Weddell Sea itself since the start of the 2012-13 fishing season. Overall, the region is considered “data-poor” by CCAMLR.

  • Harsh sea ice conditions had previously made fishing difficult in much of the region in the 1970s, when many other Southern Ocean fish populations were beginning to be exploited.

  • Originally classed as a new fishery, the fishery north of the Queen Maud Land –Lazarev Sea Coastal Zone was reclassified as an exploratory fishery in 1999 due to recognised high levels of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Catches initially focused on Patagonian toothfish well to the north of the MPA planning region, but over time effort moved southern area with increasing catches of Antarctic toothfish.

  • Current catch limits for the exploratory toothfish fishery in the seas north of Queen Maud Land, but south of 60° south are for 210 tonnes.

  • Scientific research fishing in the Weddell Sea began in the 2012/13 fishing season with a catch of approximately 60.6 tonnes.

 Climate change

  • Due to the dramatic disintegration of parts of the Larsen Ice Shelf in 1995 and 2002, changes in the Weddell Sea region have played a highly visible role in fuelling the global discussion on climate.

  • Located in the western Weddell Sea adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula, two of the three segments of the ice shelf (Larsen A and B) have completely disintegrated thus far, resulting in the accelerated flow of glaciers from land into the sea, a phenomenon predicted by many climate change scientists.

  • Reductions of the ice shelf and the resultant acceleration of glacier flow into the ocean contributes to sea level rise. In the years to come, the Weddell Sea will be a focal point for studies of global and regional climate change impacts.

  • Climate change impacts in the Weddell Sea contrast sharply. The western Weddell Sea adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest warming areas on the planet, is experiencing warming conditions and decreasing sea ice while in the eastern Weddell Sea, sea ice is increasing over the past few decades contributing significantly to an overall increase in Southern Ocean sea ice extent.

  • Changes in sea ice are also likely to impact on important processes such as carbon sequestration and the productivity of plankton, since melting sea ice and icebergs contribute nutrients that allow the development of phytoplankton blooms.

  • Although there is uncertainty about the local effects of climate change, it seems likely that the Weddell Sea will undergo significant changes, some of which will take place on short timescales.

  • Changes in temperature, ice sheet mass, sea ice extent and glaciers will impact polar species, many of which are long-lived and slow-growing – characteristics that tend to inhibit rapid adaptation to changing conditions. Many Antarctic benthic organisms are particularly affected by any significant changes to ice.

 Ocean Acidification

  • Over the last 200 years, the oceans have become 30% more acidic. If this trend continues, calcifying organisms will suffer. The increased acidity can dissolve their shells and skeletons, while the influx of CO2 decreases the availability of carbonate ions hindering their ability to build shells and skeletons.

  • The cold waters of the Southern Ocean are naturally lower in calcium carbonate than warmer waters and are thus closer to the tipping point at which organisms will begin to suffer negative effects.

  • Scientists predict that within the next two decades key planktonic species, such as pteropods (small marine snails) will no longer be able to build robust shells. In time, they may not be able to build shells at all. If pteropods, or other shell-building animals perish, it will have adverse ramifications that will cascade throughout the Southern Ocean ecosystem.


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