By: Gregory McCann

In October, China, Russia, and Norway vetoed a grand plan to create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica. The proposed reserve, five times the size of Germany, would have been home to penguins, whales, seals, sea birds, and much more. The three countries were reported to have stubbornly blocked what would have been a remarkable commitment to global wildlife conservation.

The talks that ended in the veto took place in Hobart, Tasmania, which Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in 2014 in a highly strategic move where what was described as a “state-of-the-art Chinese Antarctic ice-breaker” awaited his arrival. What would have brought Xi to Hobart, where he posed smilingly with a cuddly Tasmanian Devil held by his wife, and why would China kill the marine reserve designation?

US author and bird enthusiast Jonathan Franzen has offered an answer in his just-published book The End of the End of the Earth: “Supertanker-size factory ships may soon be coming from China, from Norway, from South Korea, to vacuum up the food on which not only the penguins but many whales and seals depend.” The “food” which Franzen refers to is krill, a small, shrimp-like crustacean that swarm in the billions in the icy waters of Antarctica.

Currently, Franzen reported, “the total reported annual take of krill is less than half a million tonnes, with Norway leading the list of harvesters. China, however, has announced its intention to increase its harvest to as much as two million tonnes a year, and has begun building ships the ships needed to do it. As the chairman of China’s National Agricultural Development Group has explained, ‘Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.’”

Tristan Kenderdine, writing in The Interpreter, described the fear  as overblown,  saying China currently harvests a miniscule amount of krill, and that conservationists worry too much about what China will do.  The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), he wrote, is capable of monitoring and patrolling the vast southern ocean. However, Kenderline makes no mention of the “krill vacuum” ships that China is building specifically for the Antarctic, and which would explain the current small annual catch.

Equally as important, China’s behavior on the high seas, including poaching in the waters of sovereign Asian nations and beyond, is a major cause for concern. It is difficult to imagine why Chinese fishing vessels would act differently near the South Pole. There may also be questions about just how effective CCAMLR will be when the new vessels arrive, or even how effective it is now in terms of combatting under-reporting of catches and poaching.

In fact, Japan is a member of CCAMLR and yet it harpoons whales in the current Ross Sea protected area despite angry protests, citing scientific research. In fact, part of CCAMLR’s mandate is to protect whales, but it cannot do it.  

Spanish actor Javier Bardem recently visited the proposed Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary, traveling there with Greenpeace in an effort to bring attention to this still-sublime ecosystem.  “I had truly seen the light and the dark of the Antarctic,” he wrote. “At its surface, penguin colonies stretch for miles on snow-capped islands, with millions of breeding pairs across the region, raising their chicks in this inhospitable environment. Enormous whales surface all around, feeding on huge pink clouds of the small shrimp-like krill, which nearly all wildlife here relies on. Fur seals and elephant seals lounge on drifting blocks of ice. While below, another world goes on existing in dark vitality.” Is those very krill that sustain all life in the Antarctic that Xi is believed to be after.

With the marine reserve defeated, it’s not difficult to imagine how this will turn out. In fact, last month Asia Sentinel described how China plunders the high seas, and with no one to protect it.  The Antarctic can basically be seen as one vast no-man’s ocean. What or who is to stop China from doing what it wants down there once those mega-boats they are working on are finished? Which begs the question—what is to happen to the wildlife of this region when the Chinese factory ships arrive?

“The fleets of China and Taiwan, which together account for two-thirds of fishing vessels on the high seas,” Franzen wrote, “operate with little or no regard for seabird mortality, and they sell their catch in markets mostly indifferent to sustainability.”

The danger is thus that Chinese vessels will take what they want and the wildlife of this unique region probably does not factor into their operations in any way.

South of New Zealand, an Antarctic reserve twice the size of Texas was created in the Ross Sea in 2016. The reserve is smaller than what planners were hoping for, but it is proof that nations can sometimes come together and do the right thing for the environment. It is possible that a massive public outcry could force China to rethink its plans for the Antartic. Beijing did walk back its decision to allow tiger parts and rhinoceros horn to be used in traditional medicine—a decision which spawned global fury.  Probably more than anywhere in the world, remote Antarctica is both out of sight and out of mind,” visited almost entirely by research teams and a handful of tour boats.

It is also probably easier to feel empathy for tigers and rhinoceros than it is for krill and penguins. But in fact, at a recent UN conference on Biodiversity, delegates urged China to take the lead role in halting the collapse of life on Earth.

It seems almost symbolic that the ship that met Xi in Hobart was a Chinese Antarctic icebreaker.  Was this a benign symbol of ‘breaking the ice’ with a new friend (Tasmania was the only Australian state Xi had never visited before that trip), or was it a sign of things to come in terms of breaking up the vast ice sheets of Antarctica in order to suck out every last resource down at the end of the Earth? The Chinese official from the agricultural group said that his country should go to Antarctica and “share,” but with 1.3 billion mouths to feed, it is unclear who he intends to share with.

The defeat of the Antarctic reserve that Bardiem and Franzen write about, shot down by China, Russia, and Norway, needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the global mass extinction crisis in which 60 percent of all wildlife has been killed by humans in the past few decades. In the worst case scenario, Antarctica is probably viewed as a final frontier to be exploited, and as it is an enormous, unpoliced zone it is ripe for the pickings—so long as the ships are capable of doing the vacuuming and freezing the contents. At best, it is a symbol of hope—one of the last places on the planet where a wild ecosystem can be conserved on a vast scale, offering hope to an increasingly battered planet.

Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for the conservation group Habitat ID, and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He has conservation projects in Sumatra and Cambodia.