U.S. Supports Antarctic Conservation, Environmental Protection

This underwater shot from the Ross ice shelf reveals the diversity of marine life that exists right next to an ice wall.
This underwater shot from the Ross ice shelf reveals the diversity of marine life that exists right next to an ice wall.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
March 19,  2013

The United States advocates a proposal to create a vast marine reserve in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, said Secretary of State John Kerry at a March 18 event. At the same time, he emphasized the Obama administration’s renewed focus on climate change and environmental stewardship.

The United States joins Australia and New Zealand to support the reserve, a proposal before the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the authority created in 1982 by international agreement to oversee environmental stewardship of the region. Some 35 nations are involved in the commission’s activity to manage the ecosystem, preserving marine life while allowing some commercial uses.

‘It’s extraordinary,” said Kerry in describing Antarctica as the coldest, windiest, driest and most pristine environment remaining on Earth. He was speaking to an audience at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington.

The Ross Sea covers about 3.6 million square kilometers on the Antarctica coast south of New Zealand. It supports a rich, diverse ecosystem unlike any other. One scientific analysis called it “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth.”

“It will be, quite simply, the largest protected area in the world,” said Kerry of the proposal, which will be considered for adoption by the commission later in 2013.

“We’re not going to wait for a crisis before we take action,” Kerry said. “I think we’re making a smart choice now. We’re proud to join with New Zealand and Australia, two countries that have an extraordinary understanding of the sea and commitment to protecting it.”

Calling himself “a child of the ocean,” Kerry also shared details of his lifelong affinity for the oceans, beginning with childhood play in the Atlantic coastal waters of his home state, Massachusetts. “I have seen this fragile ecosystem change before our very eyes,” Kerry said, referring to an array of environmental problems that have emerged over the decades, including pollution, development, acidification and sea level rise attributed to climate change.

“The science is screaming at us,” Kerry said, “to take steps to prevent potential disaster.”In a more than 30-year career in public office, Kerry has worked on marine and environmental issues. He authored legislation to preserve fisheries, and one of the final priorities of his career in the U.S. Senate was to work for national endorsement of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. With that background in environmental issues, Kerry says humankind has reached a critical threshold in understanding the interconnectedness of planetary ecosystems and human reliance upon them.

“We begin to see that this is not just an environmental issue,” Kerry said. “This is a security issue. It’s an economic security issue. It’s a national security issue. And it is in many ways a challenge with respect to energy security and our approach to energy policy.”

The recently installed secretary of state said “destruction of the ecosystem” is at stake, and “President Obama has put this agenda back on the front burner where it belongs.”

Kerry linked the security imperative of environmental stewardship to the responsibilities of human beings inhabiting the planet, but he also reminded the audience of the great potential for new discoveries that the oceans can yield.

Marine life that survives in the harsh climatic conditions of the Antarctic can lead scientists to discovery of biological processes that might give us new insight into the natural world or new solutions to illness and disease.

Kerry said researchers from Massachusetts used study of the behavior and biology of seals in the Ross Sea to create a treatment for newborn babies who suffer from a lack of oxygen during birth.