Multi-nation talks began in Australia Wednesday over plans to protect Antarctica's pristine waters by creating two vast ocean sanctuaries, with hopes Russia's previous objections to the proposed no-fishing zones can be overcome.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources
(CCAMLR) meeting in Hobart brings together 24 nations and the EU to try to agree plans for conserving marine ecosystems in the Southern Ocean.
At stake, say environmentalists, is an ocean wilderness that is home to 16,000 known species, including whales, seals, albatrosses, penguins and unique species of fish.
This is the latest attempt to agree on marine reserves after Russia stymied the plans at a special meeting in Germany in July, saying the no-fishing areas were too extensive and questioning the legal right of CCAMLR to set up such sanctuaries.
Since then, there have been mixed signals from the Russians on how they will vote but they are believed to have dropped their argument about CCAMLR's legality, boosting optimism the sanctuaries will receive support in Hobart.
CCAMLR executive secretary Andrew Wright said Wednesday he was hopeful "that we will get an outcome at this meeting" on the two proposals."I'm not sure that they will all get up (succeed) in the current form but I am ... quietly confident that some revisions will take place to both proposals and one, or hopefully both, will get up," he told AFP.
Australia, along with France and the European Union, has called for a 1.6 million square kilometre (640,000 sq mile) protected zone off East Antarctica, on the frozen continent's Indian Ocean side. Fishing would only be approved by consensus.
The United States and New Zealand are pushing for a 1.25 million square kilometre zone of the Ross Sea, the deep bay on Antarctica's Pacific side, which would be a no-fishing zone.
Because all 25 members of the commission have to agree for a decision to be made, regardless of extent of the interest they have as a nation in Antarctica, no agreement yet been reached on either proposal.
Wright said it was not only the size of the zones which could be negotiated, but also the duration for which they would be kept as sanctuaries, along with elements such as research and monitoring programs.
If accepted, the combined area of the two sanctuaries is 2.85 million square kilometres, a fraction smaller than India, more than five times larger than France and 12 times the size of Britain. Each proposal has the potential to create the world's largest marine protection zone.