Australia and France have kicked off a fresh push this week to create a vast marine sanctuary in pristine East Antarctica, hoping to build on the success of landmark deal secured last year at a key annual conservation summit.
The fate of the plan to shield critical areas of ocean around the frozen continent rests with the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which meets in Hobart until October 27.
In a major breakthrough, agreement was reached in 2016 to establish the world's largest reserve after Russia dropped its long-held opposition over fishing rights. That earlier deal saw a massive US and New Zealand-backed marine protected area (MPA) around the Ross Sea, covering more than 1.55 million square kilometers, roughly the size of Britain, Germany and France combined.
A large part of it will be a no-fishing zone with the protection taking effect from December 1, the result of years of pressure by conservationists. But time ran out to seal agreement on a second proposed protected area - the Australia and France-led East Antarctica sanctuary covering another one million square km zone.
Designating an MPA in East Antarctica this year would significantly move the needle toward a full MPA network by 2020, said Andrea Kavanagh, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Antarctic and Southern Ocean work. Plans were set out in 2009 to establish a series of MPAs in the Southern Ocean allowing marine life to migrate between areas for breeding and foraging.
But it has been slow going, with the main stumbling blocks around fishing rights and Russia and China stymieing progress in the past. A third German-backed plan is also in the works to protect the Weddell Sea, which extends from the southeast of South America over some 2.8 million square km. But it has been sent back for amendments and will not be a main agenda item this year.
However, a proposal for a fourth zone of 94,000 square km around the Western Antarctic Peninsula is set to be presented by Argentina and Chile, according to conservationists.
CCAMLR is a treaty tasked with overseeing conservation and sustainable exploitation of the Antarctic Ocean, also known as the Southern Ocean. Consensus is needed from all 24 member countries and the European Union.