Russia on Tuesday blocked attempts by Western countries to create the world’s largest ocean sanctuary off Antarctica, green groups said.
The Russian representative questioned the legal right of a meeting in Bremerhaven, northern Germany, to declare such a haven, according to organisations at the talks.
The three-day talks gathered 24 nations plus the European Union (EU) in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a 31-year-old treaty tasked with overseeing conservation and sustainable exploitation of the Southern Ocean.
One proposal, floated by the United States and New Zealand, covered 1.6 million square kilometres (640,000 square miles) of the Ross Sea, the deep bay on Antarctica’s Pacific side.
The other, backed by Australia, France and the EU, would protect 1.9 million square kilometres of coastal seas off East Antarctica, on the frozen continent’s Indian Ocean side.
Protecting those areas — which biologists say are rich in unique species — would more than double the amount of ocean sanctuary in the world.
Andrea Kavanagh, in charge of the Southern Ocean Sanctuaries campaign at the US green group Pew Environment, told AFP that Russia had refused to negotiate, saying simply that it questioned the legal status of CCAMLR to declare such zones.
“The actions of the Russian delegation have put international cooperation and goodwill at risk, the two key ingredients needed for global marine conservation,” she said.
“After two years of preparation, including this meeting, which Russia requested to settle the scientific case for the Ross Sea and East Antarctic proposals, we leave with nothing,” said Steve Campbell, director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA) of green groups.
“All members, except Russia, came to this meeting to negotiate in good faith,” he said in a press statement.
The parties met in Hobart, Australia, last October, but failed to reach a deal because of opposition by China and Russia, supported by Ukraine, which said restrictions on fishing were too onerous.
As a result, they agreed to an exceptional meeting this July. It was only the second time that the CCAMLR has met outside its annual gathering.
The fate of the proposed marine sanctuaries now lies in the next annual meeting of CCAMLR in Hobart, running from October 23 to November 1, the sources said.
Kavanagh said many delegates had been stunned and dismayed at the setback, given the effort in time and money to attend a meeting that had been requested by Russia itself, ostensibly to address questions of science.
“The proponent countries were unwilling to negotiate when it appeared that Russia was here in bad faith. They weren’t willing to lay their cards on the table,” she said.
The waters around the Antarctica are home to some 16,000 known species, including whales, seals, albatrosses and penguins, as well as unique species of fish, sponges and worms that are bioluminescent or produce their own natural anti-freeze to survive in the region’s chilly waters.
They are also rich in nutrients, whose influence spreads far beyond Antarctica thanks to the powerful current that swirls around the continent.
It is the second time in a month that Russia has raised legal objections to block environment talks.
In Bonn last month, a key panel at UN climate talks was unable to do any work after Russia unsuccessfully demanded a review of how votes are approved under the rules of consensus.
Kavanagh wondered if some “geopolitical” problem had caused Russia to throw up the roadblock in Bremerhaven, and hoped the US and other countries would engage in top-level diplomacy to resolve the issue.
“If you look at Russia’s interaction on the issue of Antarctica, they have historically been quite good. They were one of the founding members of the (1961) Antarctic Treaty, which was signed at the height of the Cold War…,” she said.
“Where this came from, we don’t know.”