I've had the privilege of doing research in places that are seldom seen by humans: remote, nearly pristine reefs in the Phoenix Islands; seamounts near Cocos Island; and the waters of Indonesia and Palau. But Antarctica was the locale that took my breath away. It is the biggest, wildest, strangest and most remote place on Earth. There the air is so clear and its beauty so stunning, you wonder if you have just learned to see.
Today, the Ocean Health Index released its first assessment of the health of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The results show that distance, fierce winds, bitter cold, the raging seas and plenty of ice have managed to diminish the human impact on the inaccessible Southern Ocean. But despite its geographic isolation, it has not been enough.
Antarctica's Delicate Balance
Over the past century, whalers and sealers nearly extirpated blue whales from the region, and so heavily damaged other species that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared a moratorium on commercial hunting beginning in 1985. Twenty years ago, it designated the entire Southern Ocean as a sanctuary for whales.
More recently, fishing has put several species at risk of overexploitation. Climate change and ocean acidification threaten the region's food web -- a serious threat, because it could take millennia to repair the damage.
Keeping people away isn't the right strategy for Antarctica. I and fellow conservationists at CI, The Nature Conservancy, WWF and other partner organizations have learned that removing people from nature is not a successful formula for conservation. Encouraging responsible and sustainable use of resources with the designation of strategically planned no-take reserves works better. When people recognize the link between a resource and their own survival, they are much more likely to protect it.
This has to be done carefully in Antarctica, as its majestic size and fearsome reputation mask what is actually a very delicate system.
Evolution has provided the animals that inhabit the Antarctic with remarkable adaptations to its rigorous climate, even including "antifreeze" in some species of icefish. A temperature change of only one degree can mean the difference between success and failure for some species.
Habitats are challenged in other ways too. Such cold locations take a long time to recover from damage caused by oil spills, trawling or other disturbances.
The bottom line is we need to treat Antarctica gently, even if it does not always return the favor to those who visit or work there.
The Results Are In
Antarctic tourism, fisheries and research can be beneficial to people, but only if managed sustainably and strategically. How can we know if those conditions prevail? This is where the Ocean Health Index, a collaborative effort to assess regional and global threats to ocean health, becomes an invaluable tool.
The Index posits that "a healthy ocean sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people now and in the future." In the Antarctic, it evaluated how well the region is delivering the maximum sustainable amounts of desired benefits.
The Antarctic region scored 72 out of 100, based on how well it provided food, natural products, tourism, livelihoods and economies, clean waters, coastal protection, biodiversity and sense of place.
Dr. Catherine Longo, one of my colleagues and a project scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, led the Antarctica assessment. She saw a mix of good and bad news.
On the positive side, the distance from human population centers, industries and agriculture protects Antarctica's clean waters. Protected whales and fur seals are also recovering from overexploitation.
On the other hand, 38 of the assessed species are decreasing. Those include some iconic species such as southern bluefin tuna, basking sharks, porbeagle sharks, gentoo penguins and five species of albatrosses, one of which is critically endangered and two others that are endangered. Dr. Longo was concerned that the population trends are unknown for 40% of the species that have been assessed, let alone the many species for which no monitoring at all has been done.
Two other issues were particularly worrisome for us: illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU) and climate change. Both are difficult to control, and both can wreak havoc on species populations and conservation efforts.
Protecting Our Shared Continent
We have to tread cautiously in this forbidding but fragile region. The IWC and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) have made progress. The latter has successfully overseen the recovery of a number of species, initiated a fisheries observer program and mandated gear modifications that reduced the number of albatrosses killed by longline fisheries. There is, however, more to be done.
For the past decade I've followed the discussions in CCAMLR as they considered proposals to create two huge marine protected areas where fishing would be prohibited. Together, these protected areas would cover an area larger than Argentina.
At the 2013 annual meeting, CCAMLR delegates from 24 nations and the European Union failed to reach agreement to establish those reserves. This failure illustrates a central weakness of Antarctic governance. A region that should be humanity's common heritage has been compromised by territorial claims on the continental shelves made by several nations eyeing future exploitation.
Antarctica may be remote, but it isn't necessarily safe from harm, whether that comes in the form of excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, illegal fishing or future exploitation of oil or minerals.
Whether or not you have ever eaten a piece of Antarctic fish or a krill oil dietary supplement, this spectacular place is meaningful to your life. The stark beauty of its land and sea matter to us, as do the lives of the iconic animals that call it home.
In recent years, the worldwide threats to coral reefs have made them a symbol of the need to protect biodiversity and its extraordinary economic benefits. Antarctica is their icy equivalent, and the new Ocean Health Index will help us protect it while safeguarding its most important gifts.
It may seem odd that the Ocean Health Index could score its "sense of place" goal for a place where no one lives, but Antarctica is one of the few places on Earth that should belong to everyone from every nation. We all have a stake in its proper stewardship.
This was originally published on Conservation International's Human Nature Blog. Greg Stone is chief scientist and executive vice president of CI's Moore Center for Science and Oceans.