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Ocean’s ‘Garden of Eden’ to house world’s largest marine reserve

October 28, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
A seminal multinational agreement will set aside roughly 600,000 square miles of ocean to create the world’s largest marine reserve. Adjoining Antarctica, the area of the Ross Sea will be protected as of December 2017; fishing will be prohibited, though researchers will be allowed a limited number of samples. William Brangham speaks with Karen Sack, the managing director of Ocean Unite, for more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a major agreement on ocean conservation today. Dozens of nations created the world’s largest marine reserve at the bottom of the globe.

William Brangham has the story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Twenty-four countries and the European Union agreed today to set aside 600,000 square miles of ocean. The newly protected zone is in the Ross Sea, which borders Antarctica. Most commercial fishing will be banned in the area, though researchers will be allowed to take limited samples.

The protection will take effect starting December 2017 and will continue for 35 years.

For more on what this means, and how it came to be, I am joined by Karen Sack. She’s managing director of the conservation organization Ocean Unite.


KAREN SACK, Managing Director, Ocean Unite: Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nice to be reporting on some good news.

KAREN SACK: It’s fantastic to be talking about some really unprecedented news for the ocean.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tell us, how important is this?

KAREN SACK: This is truly a seminal event in international ocean governance.

It’s the first time that countries around the world are coming together to agree not to take fish or other species out of the water, but to leave them in, and to leave them in for a good long period of time.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, what species in particular are we protecting here with this preserve?

KAREN SACK: Well, the Ross Sea is known as a Garden of Eden in the ocean, or sometimes called the ocean’s Serengeti.

There are 16,000 species that live there, from seals, whales, penguins, of course. Commercially, the species that is caught there is called Antarctic toothfish. It’s known in the United States as Chilean sea bass.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, when we think of these preserves normally being done, we think of them being done by individual nations within their own territorial waters. But this one is quite different.


It’s because the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean around it is governed collectively by a group of countries under the Antarctic Treaty System.

And the system actually came into being at the height of the Cold War, where countries set aside their differences and agreed to govern the Antarctic as a place for peace and science. That governance is now extending into the ocean.

And about five years ago, the countries agreed to begin to work together to establish marine reserves and protected areas. And the Ross Sea is the first big one that they have managed to agree to.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I understand also that Russia needed to be cajoled to putting its name on this agreement.

KAREN SACK: Well, part of the difficulty and why this is such a significant agreement is that decisions are made by consensus, which means that all of those 24 countries and the European Union have to agree to a decision going forward.

For several years, Russia and China were not supportive of establishing a protective area. There was very high-level engagement from the Obama administration. We believe that President Obama actually discussed this issue with President Xi in China, and that shifted the Chinese position.

Over the last 18 months, Secretary Kerry has really worked incredibly hard with his counterparts in New Zealand and around the world, working with Minister Lavrov of Russia. And it was just earlier this week, we understand, that we managed to reach agreement on this issue.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It was that touch and go?

KAREN SACK: It was that close.

Several of us were planning for maybe another year of negotiation. And it is just fantastic that we managed to get to this point, and is a testament to the ability of multinationalism to work, even when there are incredibly difficult issues on the global agenda at the moment.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We said at the beginning this is a 35-year period of time where this space will be protected. Is that long enough?

KAREN SACK: Well, no, it isn’t.

And, in fact, this was one of the big sticking points for Russia, how long the area should be protected for. The science shows that marine-protected areas should be in place without a limit in their duration.

We believe, though, that these 35 years will provide the marine life in the Antarctic and the Ross Sea area the ability to show us all just how amazing it is and will convince everyone sitting at that table 35 years from now to continue protecting this unbelievably iconic and special ocean area.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Karen Sack, thank you so much for being here.

KAREN SACK: Thank you.