The declaration of the Ross Sea marine reserve demonstrates conservation and sustainable commercial fishing can go hand in hand.

The world’s largest marine reserve, spanning 1.55 million square kilometres of Antarctic waters, was announced last week.

Russia and the United States are sabre rattling in Syria but they were able to overcome their differences sufficiently to agree on Southern Ocean protection.

The breakthrough came at the annual meeting in Hobart of the 24 countries and the European Union that make up the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

New Zealand and the US have pressed for greater protection for the past four years but such a decision requires full consensus and a number of countries including Russia had not agreed to previous proposals.

Final details are still to be decided during 2017. Including areas that have been previously closed to fishing by CCAMLR, the agreement will result in nearly three quarters of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) closed to all fishing, while allowing sustainable harvesting of fish and krill in other sections of the Ross Sea.

The Ross Sea sustainable toothfish fishery was initiated by New Zealand through CCAMLR nearly 20 years ago.

The New Zealand fishing industry recognises the Ross Sea is a unique and special area, which at the same time supports a very productive and sustainable fishery. From the start of the process industry has been involved as a stakeholder group to develop a workable MPA. While the final MPA design went further than industry thought was appropriate, it is committed to working with New Zealand Government officials and other nations to implement the right balance between environmental protection and sustainable fisheries practices.

Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) received Marine Stewardship Council certification in November 2010.

The MSC tick, regarded as the international sustainability gold standard, is based on third party assessment across three broad categories – maintenance of the target fish stock, maintenance of the ecosystem, effectiveness of the fishery management system.

The Ross Sea fishery is strictly managed, with two observers carried on all vessels, and is restricted to an annual catch of about 2900 tonnes depending on the results of biennial stock assessments. Based on one of the first internationally successful tagging programmes; initiated by the New Zealand fishing industry in 2001; such assessments have been carried out annually or biennially since 2006.

The yield estimates on which annual allocations are based are founded on a precautionary CCAMLR decision rule that states that at no time will the population spawning stock biomass drop below 50 percent over a 35 year horizon - that is the stock assessments are always looking 35 years ahead.  The current figure for spawning stock biomass after nearly 20 years of fishing is about 75 percent of the initial stock.

Other CCAMLR managed fisheries for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and Antarctic toothfish take place around South Georgia, Kergeulen and Heard and McDonald islands, and South Sandwich Islands, around the Antarctic continent in both East and West Antarctica.

Toothfish, sold in the US as Chilean sea bass, is highly prized for its snow-white flesh, high in omega 3 content.

In the Ross Sea, Antarctic toothfish are caught on longlines in deep water generally between 700 to 1800 metres and only in the summer months when the sea ice thaws allowing safe access for vessels.

As well as protection for marine mammals, and fish the marine reserve encompasses the Ross Sea shelf, the Balleny islands region, and a representative area of seamounts.

“This decision represents an almost unprecedented level of international co-operation regarding a large marine ecosystem comprising important benthic and pelagic habitats,” CCAMLR executive secretary Andrew Wright enthused.

“It has been well worth the wait because there is now agreement among all members that this is the right thing to do.”

The Ross Sea reserve decision, as complex and political and time consuming as it was, demonstrates the need for consultation – and patience – where a number of parties are involved.