Yesterday, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources (CCAMLR) concluded its 39th annual meeting. While the Commission’s mandate includes protecting Antarctic wildlife and establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), discussions of these protections were limited during this year’s virtual meeting.

In addition to foregoing the opportunity to enact the largest conservation action in human history, CCAMLR was unable to reach a consensus on the fate of a Russian vessel, the F/V Palmer, suspected of fishing illegally in the protected waters of Antarctica’s Ross Sea.

Evidence of the illegal fishing was presented to the Commission by the New Zealand government. Unfortunately, the Commission, which includes representation from Russia, could not agree to add the vessel to their list of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) vessels. Instead, the vessel will be allowed to continue to fish this season without consequence. While CCAMLR is seen as a leader in combatting illegal fishing around Antarctica, the lack of consequences for Russia’s F/V Palmer came as a huge disappointment to many advocates for Antarctica’s protection.

“Although we’re glad the meeting took place virtually, the limited agenda was troubling and resulted in yet another year passing when CCAMLR failed to address climate change impacts or establish a network of marine protected areas in its waters,” explains Claire Christian, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC). “Even worse, CCAMLR is going backwards on combatting IUU fishing by allowing the Palmer to continue to fish.”

Andrea Kavanagh, director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work at The Pew Charitable Trusts, shares ASOC’s sentiments. “Overall, the failure of global leadership to protect this critical ecosystem is deeply concerning. On the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica and on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty going into force—an agreement reached at the height of the Cold War to protect an entire continent—establishing new marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean should have been an easy decision.”

Fortunately, the proposed expansion of marine protected areas in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean received strong support from several countries represented at the meeting. Australia and Uruguay agreed to co-sponsor the Weddell Sea MPA, while Norway and Uruguay joined the countries proposing an MPA in East Antarctica. In addition, most countries represented at the meeting, including Korea and Brazil, agreed to join a statement put forward by the European Union endorsing the importance of MPA designations for the protection of Antarctica’s waters.

Now, advocates of Antarctica’s protection have their sights set on establishing a network of MPAs around the continent at the 2021 meeting.

“We are grateful to MPA proponent countries who have driven efforts in establishing a network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean and call on their high-level diplomacy to secure designations in 2021,” says Kavanagh. “We remain confident that CCAMLR can achieve this major milestone for conservation next year and look forward to adding a new Antarctic anniversary worth celebrating for years to come.”