For its debut initiative, The Wishful Squid has funded the registration of a Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem (VME) in Antarctica with the help of marine biologist – and The Soap & The Sea’s chief scientist! – Dr Susanne Lockhart. Located off Cape Well-Met, Vega Island, on the Eastern Antarctic Peninsula, The Soap and the Sea’s VME was officially registered in October 2022.
Read Susie’s research paper showing how the Cape Well-Met site is archetypical of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems. Its abundant seafloor habitat demonstrates a complex assemblage of sponges (including large vase glass sponges) and soft corals.
Micro marine reserves, VMEs are sanctioned areas, just one nautical mile in radius, that are recognized by the international community for their fragile and unique seafloor habitats and fauna. In Antarctica, cold-water corals – sometimes hundreds or possibly even thousands of years old – are particularly dense in colour and diversity, and they provide essential habitat for an astonishing variety of ocean life. The VME status protects these vital habitats from bottom fishing and long-line fishing, forever.
The process of designating a VME in Antarctica is complex and subject to international agreements and regulations. It involves collaboration between multiple countries and organisations that make up the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
It is a scientific and regulatory process that involves several steps:
Scientific assessment: A detailed scientific study is conducted to identify areas that meet the criteria for a VME, based on their unique habitats, species, and ecological significance.
Proposal and consultation: A proposal is made to designate a specific area as a VME.
Regulatory review: A VME proposal must pass through a 3-step review to reach designation:
1. The annual CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring and Management (EMM) meeting each summer is made up of scientists sent by member states/countries who review the submitted proposal.
2. The CCAMLR Scientific Committee, made up of scientists sent by member states/countries, reviews the advice passed to them by the various intersession meetings.
3. This step is more political and is made up of scientists, state officials, diplomats, and their lawyers. They make the official and final decisions related to the advice they receive from the Scientific Committee.
Designation: If the Commission and its Member States agree, the area is officially designated as a VME and measures are put in place to protect it from human activities that could damage or destroy its unique habitats and species.
Why a first initiative in Antarctica?
Antarctica is one of the Earth’s last great wildernesses, a home for whales, seals, krill, penguins, and an incredibly diverse underwater ecosystem in which cold-water corals thrive. Yet Antarctica is under threat from climate change and over-fishing. Global warming is melting its vast ice sheets, opening up new areas to fishing. Long-line fishing is particularly damaging as the lines often trawl along the seabed, damaging corals and other vulnerable species. “The corals are hundreds – even thousands –of years old and coral communities may never recover from such damage,” explains Dr Lockhart in an article published in The Economist on 12 March 2020.
And it is not only a question of wildlife. The Antarctic’s cold-water corals have an especially important role in capturing and storing carbon, mitigating climate change. Unlike trees or sea kelp, the calcium carbonate structure of corals permanently locks up carbon, which will eventually be buried under the seabed rather than being released again when soft tissues biodegrade. As kelp forests are shrinking and coral reefs in tropical waters are dying, we need other areas in the ocean to store carbon.
Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are so essential and so urgently needed. Unfortunately putting in place an MPA in Antarctica is a very slow and challenging process, due to the way Antarctica is governed. The CCAMLR operates on the basis of consensus decision-making among its 27 Member States, which means that all Member States must agree on any decisions taken by the organisation. VMEs can help pave the way for the creation of MPAs. Although small, once you have several VMEs in a region it becomes very difficult to justify that an MPA is not vital for that area.
Read Susie's research paper here