Officials from 24 nations and the EU are in Hobart, Tasmania, for ten days of talks aimed at advancing plans to set up two marine sanctuaries in Antarctica. Two proposals are currently on the table – one for a marine protected area (MPA) in East Antarctic, submitted by Australia, the EU and France, and the second in the Ross Sea, submitted by New Zealand and the US.

Both zones are located within the Southern Ocean, which houses more than 10,000 unique species - from penguins and leopard seals to the less widely loved but equally important bone-eating worms, which live on the skeletons of dead whales.  

Photo: A selection of Antarctic seafloor animals collected during an expedition to the Weddell Sea. Including sea urchins, starfish, brittlestars, sea cucumbers, molluscs, crustaceans and worms. (Camille Moreau & Huw Griffiths, Image © BAS)

Russia and China have so far said no to the proposals. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) makes decisions on a consensus basis, so if one country blocks a proposal, plans must be put on ice. 

Environmental campaigners are positive about this week’s meeting, however. “These things are not going to change in a hurry,” Grigory Tsidulko, of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a coalition of 30 environmental campaign groups, told VoR in an interview from Hobart. 

“[But] we hope that this year we can achieve designation, or at least significant breakthrough - at least one designation of one marine protected area (MPA).” 

According to Tsidulko, Russia has shown signs of moving closer towards agreement this year, for instance by withdrawing a key legal argument on why the boundaries of the protected zones. Russia has always asserted that it has a strong legal argument against the proposed boundaries. 

Meanwhile, Tsidulko also said that Russia is working actively with Germany to develop another proposal for MPAs in the Weddell Sea. 

“We see Russia being very pro-active, and see signs that indicate the tone of Russia has changed over the last several months.” 

Others, however, are doubtful that there will be speedy progress. “I am not optimistic, to be honest. I would be pleasantly surprised if there was agreement on the MPAs,” said Professor Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University in London. 

One key sticking point, according to Tsidulko of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, is that the countries proposing the marine sanctuaries want their boundaries to be permanent. That does not mean boundaries cannot be reviewed in future, but it means that “protection is permanent,” he said. 

“Both Russia and Ukraine and to some extent China are culturally not used to permanence, so would be more comfortable with some shorter term for the MPAs,” he said. 

But Russian officials say that the proposal that the boundaries of the marine sanctuaries should be permanent is unreasonable. Last year the head of the international rights department of the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency, Dmitry Kremenyuk, said that the position of western countries on the time period for the boundaries of the protected areas was “misleading”. Fundamentally, he argued that by accepting that the boundaries would be permanent, Russia was being asked too much - to commit to an agreement that could, in future years, prove to be against Russian interests. 

Privately, Russian sources strongly disagreed with the notion that Russia could be “culturally not used” to permanence. 

“One of the principle goals of Russian foreign policy has always been the maintenance of stability,” said a senior Russian expert close to the government. “For example, Russia is one of the staunchest supporters of the UN system.” 

A second issue is the size of the protected zones - bigger than critics of the proposals would like, although environmentalists disagree. 

Earlier this week Tony Fleming, the head of Australia's delegation to Hobart and director of the Australian Antarctic Division, said that the size of the proposed marine sanctuary in the East Antarctic has now been cut - from 1.9 million square kilometres (760,000 square miles) to 1.0 million square kilometres. 

Fleming said that the reduction in scale would allow for some fishing and research in the protected zones, as long as conservation issues were taken into account. 

The Russian government and some Russian Antarctic experts have said that they are not at all against the establishment of marine sanctuaries and the protection of endangered species there. 

They say they merely disagree with the proposed boundaries of the protected areas, which have nothing in common with the actual habitats of the animals and plants that live there. 

Instead, the proposed zones reflect international maritime boundaries drawn up by a group of countries in the early 20th century – as well as swallowing up key fishing areas, they argue. Australia and the other countries behind the proposals are, in part, simply promoting their own geopolitical interests in the region. 

“Taking into account that seven countries of those which have signed the Antarctic Treaty and the CCAMLR Convention – Great Britain, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, France, Argentina and Chile – have earlier declared territorial claims to Antarctica, Russia is obliged to consider the potential possibility that an MPA may be used as an instrument to establish geopolitical control over southern polar regions over which territorial claims were made earlier,” Valery Lukin, of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, wrote in an academic journal earlier this year. 

“Therefore, when an MPA is being established, in each case a transparent international regime for management, research and monitoring in the protected area must be guaranteed.” 

The Antarctic is governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which says the region is to be reserved for scientific and peaceful purposes, and which has been signed by a number of countries including Russia. It is in place indefinitely. 

At the beginning of the 20th century Argentina, Chile, the UK, Norway, France, Australia and New Zealand made territorial claims to Antarctica – which were effectively frozen by the Treaty. 

Tensions remain between those original claimants and countries such as Russia, which were not part of that group. Privately, several Russian sources say that they have no doubt that Australia and the other countries making the proposals are motivated by geopolitical interests as well as environmental ones. 

The Russian source close to the government said: “Russians want an overall solution to the governance of the Antarctic and the Arctic regions. That’s the problem, not the issue of individual marine sanctuaries. So Russia would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, and let this simmer quietly for now.” 

The territorial disputes over the Antarctic and Arctic disputes are related, although not in a direct manner, the source said. Russia wants to revise the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the main legal framework according to which the Arctic is governed (though it is also governed according to the laws of each Arctic state and international agreements) due to various changes since it was first concluded, he said. The presence of mineral deposits in Antarctica is also a factor, the source added. 

In any case, analysts agree that geopolitics can’t be left out. 

“Sometimes the negotiations concerned are really about the conservation of Antarctic marine environments and conservation measures for living resources, and sometimes they are not,” said Professor Dodds of Royal Holloway University. 

“The bottom line is this - stewardship is linked to sovereignty and security. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean are disputed spaces.” 

Dodds thinks one key difficulty in the negotiations will be whether fishing nations think there is sufficient scope for their commercial interests - while at the same time being mindful that the US and claimant states, such as New Zealand, are not seen to be manipulating CCAMLR for their interests. 

Commercial fishing remains one of the key sources of tension regarding not only the marine sanctuaries, but also CCAMLR more generally, said Dodds. 

“When the convention was negotiated, a balance was attempted between exploitation of living resources and science-based conservation,” he said. 

“For some fishing nations such as Russia, there is a concern that more and more emphasis is given to conservation and restriction, rather than recalling that the convention was always about trying to reconcile, however imperfectly, exploitation and conservation. 

“Conservation is always saturated with sovereignty and security concerns, and countries such as Russia are not blind to that relationship.” 

Some observers have raised the possibility that the crisis in Ukraine could complicate the talks. This week CCAMLR’s secretary, Australia’s Andrew Wright, suggested that it might impact on the negotiations. 

“No one hangs their coat and hat up at the door, some of those issues come through,” he told reporters in Hobart. 

Professor Dodds agreed. “The problem for the negotiators this year might have nothing to do with fishing and MPA selection,” he said. “It might have everything to do with a crisis some 10,000 miles away in Ukraine. 

“Worsening relations with Russia might mean that Russian negotiators are not inclined to agree to anything that is supported by the US and its allies. There is a danger that the sanction policies could interfere with Southern Ocean fisheries management. 

“Ukraine was also sceptical about the size of the MPAs and accompanying restrictions, and it will be interesting to see whether Russia and Ukraine converge or diverge, given events closer to their respective territories,” said Dodds. 

But whatever Ukraine’s significance in this debate, the geopolitical questions are knotty enough on their own. 

Meanwhile, as some sources noted, the western countries’ proposals are being given a powerful voice through a well-financed media campaign backed by wealthy charitable foundations. 

The Russian and Chinese arguments, in contrast, are less widely disseminated. 

But this is not because the Russians have no strong arguments, the Russian expert close to the Kremlin said. “The Russians are not very concerned about the media,” he said. 

“They are happy with the work of their scientific research work in Antarctica, and in the long term, they prioritise stability and order. 

“So they are more concerned about the bigger picture both in Antarctica and in the Arctic, about getting the legal claims in the region right, in order to ensure that they have their options open and their interests are taken care of in years to come.” 

Read our earlier stories on Antarctica here: 

Russia and Australia re-ignite row over Antarctic conservation areas

Antarctic crabs, whales and penguins star in new compendium of marine life 

Russian scientists hope to get precious water droplets from Lake Vostok