By Amanda Biederman
Chief Science Correspondent
About two weeks ago, I jumped off the Palmer dock and into the icy waters surrounding the station. It was an exhilarating experience, and something that almost everyone who comes to Palmer will do at one point or another.
Think of it as an Antarctic initiation of sorts.
However, I also jumped in support of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance's "Penguin Plunge," an ongoing campaign launched last month to raise awareness of the need for protection of marine life in the Southern Ocean" According to the AOA's website, the campaign's goal is to "create a global groundswell to convince the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to finally take action to protect these amazing and wondrous places this year."
The AOA is urging participants to upload photos of themselves jumping into the water (they note that it does not have to be cold water) and to share their dedication to the cause through social media. In some ways, the Penguin Plunge reminds me of last summer's ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It relies primarily on social media, and participants do not have to do very much apart from a quick photo or video upload.
But while last year's campaigners asked for donations towards ALS research (and raised quite a bit in the process) the goal of the Penguin Plunge is solely for awareness. And this makes sense. ALS patients need a cure, and that won't happen without a large amount of scientific research. And research requires money - a lot of money.
Marine protection of the Southern Ocean, however, is more of a policy issue, although money would certainly play a role in its implementation. It's an issue that I, as an unofficial Antarctic marine advocate, would love to see people be aware of. And if this campaign spreads (at the moment it appears that only about 50 people have participated, unless I'm mistaken), it's not completely out of the question that CCAMLR might take notice. And it is for that reason that I took back my previous dismissal of social media campaigns, and decided to participate.
CCAMLR is a 25-member nation organization established in 1980 that regulates the use and protection of marine animals in the Southern Ocean. I've talked about CCAMLR before in reference to the organization's annual international catch limits for the fishing of the Antarctic and Patagonian toothfishes, better known among seafood lovers as the Chilean sea bass.
The penguins, the namesake of AOA's campaign, are not generally directly threatened by fishing activities. At the moment, their greatest survival challenges include the effects of climate change and pollution, including oil spills.
CCAMLR was founded on the principle of ecology-based management, meaning that its policies are set with the goal of sustainability and mitigation.
In an article titled "CCAMLR! It’s not the 1980s anymore," AOA argues that CCAMLR is limited by its strict consensus rule, noting that widely popular motions are often rejected based on the dissent of one or a few members. Pugh said CCAMLR is currently limited by vetoes from Russia, and traveled to Moscow earlier this spring to discuss a solution for the issue.
AOA, along with many others, hopes to establish the Southern Ocean as a marine protected area (MPA). CCAMLR is aware of this pressure. In a 2005 symposium, the establishment of MPAs was identified as a "future challenge." CCAMLR met again earlier this month in Santiago to rediscuss the organization's progress and future goals.
It is not entirely clear what would happen if the Southern Ocean, or parts of it, were established as MPA. According to the World Commission on Protected Areas, an MPA is an "insurance policy." MPA status can sometimes allow for regulated fishing activity based on current scientific population monitoring on biodiversity and stock size.
Although it is not formally designated as such, CCAMLR's current management of the Southern Ocean seems to fall somewhere around the Category VI range. For some, including the AOA, this level of management is simply insufficient.
The pressure to protect Antarctic marine life stems from the fact that, as Antarctic marine scientist David Ainley argues, this area is relatively untouched. This means scientists can gather information on environments and ecosystems that are primarily free from the factor of human influence. This is our last chance to gather information on how the natural world truly operates - information that could be useful for managing and remedying other parts of the world's oceans.
Although the details of management and protection remain ambiguous it is clear that these waters, and the species that live in them, should be protected. Hopefully, whether due to citizen demand through the Penguin Plunge, scientist's advocacy, or some other factor, CCAMLR will continue to set policies that best protect this region.
If you are interested in participating in the Penguin Plunge, visit antarcticocean.org/penguinplunge. The campaign's cause is one that fully deserves to be widely known and supported.