March 19, 2013 at 4:17 PM ET
By Andrea Thompson
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for the establishment of increased protections in two parts of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica at an event held Monday night by The Pew Charitable Trusts at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.
Kerry appeared with New Zealand's ambassador to the United States, Michael Moore, to make the case for the two countries' push for a marine protected area (or MPA) in Antarctica's Ross Sea. If created, it would be the largest MPA in the world.
"The Ross Sea … is a natural laboratory. And we disrespect it at our peril, as we do the rest of the ocean," Kerry said in his remarks at the event, which also screened the award-winning documentary "The Last Ocean," which highlights the Ross Sea.
The Ross Sea is teaming with life, as the home to more than 1 million pairs of Adélie penguins; 28,850 pairs of emperor penguins; 30,000 to 50,000 Weddell seals; 5.5 million Antarctic petrels and 21,000 minke whales, according to Pew. And like many parts of the Antarctic ocean environment, the Ross Sea has been left relatively unscathed by human activities, with fewer pollutants and invasive species and less large-scale fishing than in other parts of the Earth's oceans.
But global warming and increasing interest in the rich fisheries found in the Southern Ocean are putting pressure on this environment, those calling for the MPA have warned. [8 of the World's Most Endangered Places]
"The Ross Sea is one of the most pristine places left on Earth," said Joshua Reichert, executive vice president of The Pew Charitable Trusts, in a statement. "It now faces challenges, brought on in great part by the warming of the Earth's climate, that threaten to alter the fragile web of life that has endured for millennia."
At a July meeting, 24 countries and the European Union will decide whether to create the Ross Sea MPA and another MPA in East Antarctica, which was proposed by the European Union, France and Australia. The proposals will be submitted to the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, an independent international body established in 1982 that reaches decisions on marine protections by consensus.
"When it comes to the Ross Sea and Antarctica, we're not going to wait for a crisis before we take action. I think we're making a smart choice now," Kerry said."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, and who have been great stewards."
An effort last October to convince the commission to accept the MPA proposals failed because consensus couldn't be reached. The group will meet again from July 15-17 in Bremerhaven, Germany, to reconsider the proposals.