Preserving the World’s Last Ocean

March 1st, 2012

Credit: John Weller

By Mercedes Mehling

John Weller wants you to care about the ocean-one in particular that you may have never heard of. Located in the unforgiving, frigid bay of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, the Ross Sea is considered the last healthy marine ecosystem on the planet. Despite being the windiest, driest and coldest place on earth, the ecosystem is teeming with predatory fish, whales, seals, and an astonishing one third of the world’s Adélie penguins, Emperor penguins and Antarctic petrels. Unlike the rest of the world’s oceans, the Ross Sea has remained virtually untouched by human industry, pollution, invasive species and overfishing. Unfortunately, the commercial fishing industry views the Ross Sea as an untapped market, and since 1996 around 3,000 tons of Antarctic Toothfish have been removed from its waters each year. John Weller and his brainchild, the Last Ocean Project, seeks to stop this before it’s too late.

Project Beginnings

The idea for the Last Ocean Project started in 2004. Weller, a critically acclaimed photographer, writer and filmmaker, had just written a book on a conservation initiative for the Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

John Weller, Photo by Cassandra Brooks

“The project drove home the point that conservation is not a luxury but a necessity tied into human well-being,” says Weller. “This is an incredibly important concept that is missed by a lot of the media. Most of the media we see is so divisive and it pits conservation against industry. This is not at all the case-they are completely tied together.”

Inspired by this concept of conserving pristine places in nature, he wanted to do more. A friend showed up on his doorstep one day after a trip to Antarctica studying penguins. She gave him a paper written by David Ainley about the Ross Sea. It was the first document to identify the Ross Sea as the last marine ecosystem on earth, a pristine place that was under threat from a fishery in New Zealand.

“The paper kept me up nights, in my mind I had no choice – I needed to get involved.”

Veteran Antarctic Ecologist Dr. David Ainley has been studying penguins inthe Ross Sea for more than 30 years, photo by John Weller

Weller flew out to talk to Ainley and they discussed trying to tell the story with the purpose of promoting conservation of the Ross Sea. He took home stacks of papers from Ainley’s work to bulk up on his knowledge of the Ross Sea and its ecosystem, wrote a proposal and sent it out to scientists, seal and penguin biologists, basically anyone who would listen. Within a day, the response he got from the scientific community was tremendous. In fact, only two people he contacted did not respond right away-because they were on boats at the time. Both promptly responded as soon as they were back on land.

“That was a huge deal. We knew we were barking up the right tree.”

Using Media to Spread the Word

The project is currently spreading its efforts to conservation of the rest of the world’s oceans, but is still primarily focused on the Ross Sea. Partially through the organization’s efforts, there have been international movements from NGOs, scientists and other organizations to protect the world’s “last ocean”. The eight year project will soon come to fruition in one way or another, Weller says, and while progress is happening with the Ross Sea, the project is starting to expand.

“We created a shark film on the state of sharks and pressures that they’re under, their interconnection with the ecosystem and why it’s bad to kill off all of the sharks from a human point of view.”

The Last Ocean Project’s Outdoor Cinema

The film was used in the Bahamas as part of a celebration of a new Bahamian piece of legislation that says all of the Bahamas’ waters are now a shark sanctuary. They are also bringing the film to Micronesia to promote what could be the largest shark sanctuary in the world and hopefully, Weller says, the film will be part of the successful push to make that happen. Cassandra Brooks, the News Director of the project is working on producing small media to promote other ocean issues and the project itself is focusing largely on media to spread the word about how important oceans are to us as humans.

Why Should You Know About the Ross Sea?

In terms of marine life, the top predators are the ones most people like to eat. In the rest of the world, those fish have virtually disappeared because of overfishing. In the Ross Sea, this is not the case.

“All of the naturally occurring species from predator to prey are all abundant in their preindustrial concentrations.”

The Ross Sea is only 2% of the Southern Ocean but it holds immense numbers of key species, and they are surviving in the coldest place on earth. “Every creature there demands your immediate respect because they’re so highly adaptive. They’re living in the driest, coldest, windiest place on earth and they’re thriving there. It’s just mind-boggling to see these animals out there. It’s just so humbling.”

Killer Whales and Ice Bergs, photo by John Weller

Unfortunately, the world, Weller says, in terms of our ocean resources is at a tipping point whether we like it or not. 90% of the world’s top predatory fish have been decimated by commercial fishing practices since 1950. This is something that is not recognized by the general population and the critical legislation to encourage the healing of our ocean systems is not being implemented fast enough.

“We basically put these ocean systems to the brink of collapse worldwide,” Weller says. “The Ross Sea is the last place on earth that we haven’t intrinsically changed with our industry. It’s the last truly healthy body of water left in the world, which is an incredible thing to say when you think about the size of the world’s oceans, it seems impossible that we could damage something so vast and seemingly infinite.”

Knowledge about the Ross Sea is extremely important for this reason in order to understand the context of the state of the world’s oceans. 700 million people rely on the ocean as their sole source of sustenance and without those resources, they will be unable to survive.

“People need to understand the severity of ocean issues worldwide and they need to understand it now. It may not be us, but our children and grandchildren are definitely going to feel the crunch, and it could be severe.”

The ways in which commercial fishing would affect the ecosystem in the Ross Sea, says Weller, is highly unpredictable. But the effects will not be positive. “It’s like a maze of dominoes-knowing how they’re going to topple is almost impossible, but we know they’re going to topple.”

“There is more unknown about Antarctic toothfish than there is known” Joe Eastman Antarctic Evolutionary Biologist, photo by Rob Robbins

Weller says that there is hope, but first there needs to be widespread knowledge in order for positive change to happen.

“This is a human story. This is not about some bizarre species of fish that lives at 5000 feet at the end of the world. This is a story that is indicative of our entire struggle to become sustainable and if we can internalize it in that way and focus on its importance, a lot of things can change.”

What Can You Do To Help?

Weller says that there are three things that need to be done in order to protect the future of the Ross Sea. “First and foremost is to change behavior and the behavior in question is the consumption of Toothfish.” Antarctic Toothfish are sold in restaurants around the world and are marketed as “Chilean Sea Bass”, which is a misnomer. The first small step in protecting the Ross Sea is first to spread knowledge about the Toothfish and for people to say no to its consumption.

“These fish are completely unsustainable. Their biology is the antithesis of a sustainable fish: They don’t reproduce every year, and we don’t know enough about their biology to make a sustainable fishery. Nobody has ever found an egg and we don’t know where or when they spawn.”

Antarctic toothfish are an important food item for Weddell seals, photo by Jessica Meir

This is the easiest way you can help to discourage commercial fishing in the Ross Sea, simply by refusing to purchase “Chilean Sea Bass” in restaurants or fish markets.

The second thing that everyone can do is to learn more and get involved and you can do this by going to “The real fight right now is in New Zealand, but this is a global issue and there needs to be global awareness. People’s role in this country is not diminished, in fact it may be increased.”

The third way to get involved is to tell your friends, family and anyone else you know and broadcast the information and know that it is a global, human problem.

“That is perhaps the most important thing, to get your friends involved and help create a groundswell of support for conservation of the Ross Sea and ocean awareness in general.”

Positive Changes and Hope for the Future

There are two main things that the Last Ocean Project has been able to accomplish thus far. The first was in the political realm, being part of the catalyst of the Ross Sea protection legislation that is being discussed right now. The organization proposed and funded a Ross Sea symposium at the International Marine Conservation Congress in 2009 which brought scientists together from all over the world in order to present their work to each other and create a master paper which they then submitted to the Antarctic Treaty System. That paper was then turned into a political proposal for a marine protected area in the Ross Sea, which is being discussed this year.

“We have a chance this year to actually change the tide. At the beginning of this process, nobody would have even thought that this could have been possible to the point of discussion because it takes twenty-six nations to make a change down in Antarctica. The fact that it’s even on the table is a huge win and we were involved in that whole process.”

Seastars and Anchor Ice, photo by John Weller

The second thing that the project has accomplished is to create media that has the ability to bring the story of the Ross Sea to a non-scientific audience, the regular people that need the information in order to make informed decisions.

“In all honesty, when people hear the story and they see the photographs of these incredible places and incredible creatures, they’re on board. People want to be involved; they want good things to happen. That’s been really exciting to see, and given me a lot of hope personally, because if people can be inspired and we can give them the right information, for the most part people want to do the right thing. They want to do the right thing by their children and their grandchildren.”

Adelie Penguins Hunting, photo by John Weller

Weller believes that although we are at a tipping point in terms of the fate of our oceans, we have a chance right now to change the course of history.

“The beginning of this story is basically un-refuted. The ending of the story is still to be decided. We can make a difference and we can do it right now.”

The goal of the Last Ocean Project is not just to protect one small area of the earth; it is to make people realize the importance of this ecosystem to human existence. We get somewhere between 50-80% of our oxygen from the ocean, so if oceans are being negatively affected by human industry, so is the air we breath. But Weller says it’s not that hard to turn things around. Marine protected areas have been studied and proven to not just recover when left alone, but also feed other damaged areas nearby. With a strategically placed network of protected areas around the world, there is hope that all oceans will be able to recover someday.

“If we can protect this one place, this last place, that can be a game changer for the rest of the world.”

To find out more about John Weller, the Last Ocean Project and the Ross Sea, visit the links below.

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One Response to “Preserving the World’s Last Ocean”

  • Best comprehensive article yet on the Ross Sea. I’m certainly supportive of it becoming a MPA, while I once believed that New Zealand was of similar mind, it seems they’d reject the idea. Once again, money changes everything.

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