The idea of creating extensive marine reserves in the Southern Ocean, around Antarctica, seems like a no-brainer.
The reserves would protect what is still the most pristine aquatic ecosystem in existence, and they would extend to the ocean some of the international protection that the continent enjoys: the recognition that the south polar region is a world treasure, off limits to the frenzy of resource extraction playing out across the rest of the planet.
In July, at the most recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in Bremerhaven, Germany, there was a nearly giddy sense of optimism that, after repeated failures, the proposal would finally pass. But it failed again, thanks largely to Russia and Ukraine, who raised unfounded legal objections. And while not completely caving in, fishing nations like China, Norway and Japan called for smaller reserves and a “sunset clause” that would allow for future exploitation and essentially render the whole idea of a permanent reserve meaningless.
All this has led the staunchest supporters of the original 875,000-square-mile proposal — chiefly the United States and New Zealand — to do exactly the wrong thing. Instead of going into the next month’s meeting in Hobart, Australia, with renewed determination, the two countries announced last week that they would agree to shrink the proposed reserves by 40 percent, in the belief that something is better than nothing.
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