The Ross Sea: You Can Look But You Can’t Touch

It’s big. It’s cold. It’s home to well over a thousand species. Best of all, it’s off-limits.

The Ross Sea of Antarctica was established as the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) on October 27th, 2016.  The title is well-deserved, as new MPA spans just under 1.6 million square kilometers, 1.1 million of which is a designated “no-take” zone4. This means that an entire area of the ocean, larger than the province of British Columbia, is shielded from the pressures of extractive activities – the same pressures that presently plague so many other parts of the oceans.

Emperor penguins diving, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Picture © Paul Nicklen

Known for its status as one of Earth’s only unblemished marine ecosystems, the Ross Sea is home to over a third of Earth’s Adelie penguin population and other ecologically-important species such as krill and minke whales2. With this in mind, one can understand the importance of protecting the relatively untouched and virtually pollution-free paradise that is the Ross Sea.

The establishment of a high seas MPA in a still-intact and ecologically-rich area is a step forward in marine conservation. Rather than making feeble attempts at recovering it after it is destroyed, the Ross Sea is protected from extractive pressures such as pollution and over-fishing while it is still a healthy habitat3.

Watch the video below to fully appreciate its pristine beauty.

This agreement was no small feat – it has been 5 years in the making and required the collaboration of 24 nations and the European Union. China and Russia had both expressed concerns about the implementation of the MPA hampering on future seabed mining projects, and length of the protection status for the Ross Sea was also a hot topic and the source of many disagreements throughout the years2.

“This landmark decision represents the first time that nations have agreed to protect a huge area of the ocean that lies beyond the jurisdiction of any individual country”
– Andrea Kavanagh, director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work for the Pew Charitable Trusts

Eventually, at the 2016 annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Australia, the implementation of the Ross Sea MPA was unanimously agreed upon. However, this agreement only came to fruition after a significant compromise: the protections of the Ross Sea will expire in 35 years.

Read the proposal for the establishment of the Ross Sea MPA here.

While 35 years is a short time considering the long lives of some mammals who call the Ross Sea home, it does not necessarily mean that it would no longer be protected after that time1. As long as there is a consensus to keep the Ross Sea as a MPA, it will remain protected. This is where raising awareness for the importance of protecting marine habitats from irreversible destruction comes into play. The fact that multiple nations were able to come together, recognize the value and rarity of the Ross Sea, and implement a strategy to protect it is a hopeful sign towards a future of protected and healthy oceans.


1 Cafina, C. (2016). Ross Sea MPA creation means the last pristine place in the ocean is finally protected. National Geographic. Retrieved from

2 Howard, B. C. (2016). World’s Largest Marine Reserve Created Off Antarctica. National Geographic. Retrieved from

3 Lotze, H.K., Coll, M., Magera, A. M., Ward-Paige, C., and Airoldi, L. (2011). Recovery of marine animal populations and ecosystems. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 26(11): 595-605.

4 Slezak, M. (2016). World’s largest marine park created in Ross Sea in Antarctica in landmark deal. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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