The Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (RSRMPA)

Figure 1. The Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area, comprised of the General Protection Zone (areas i, ii, and iii), the Special Research Zone (SRZ), and the Krill Research Zone (KRZ).
Figure 1. The Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area, comprised of the General Protection Zone (areas i, ii, and iii), the Special Research Zone (SRZ), and the Krill Research Zone (KRZ).

On 28 October, 2016, after several years of negotiation, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) adopted Conservation Measure 91-05 (link pending) and thereby established the Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (RSRMPA).  It actually started decades ago, when explorers and scientists from all over the globe took an interest in the Ross Sea region.  Over the years, countless studies have occurred throughout the vast region, from the darkest depths to the shallow shorelines and including areas under the seasonal and permanent sea ice.  It has become clear to just about everyone that there is something special about this place.  As the years passed, the results of those studies transformed our sense of awe into the scientific realization that the Ross Sea region is highly biodiverse and productive; relative to elsewhere, it is one of the most pristine ocean regions on our planet.

More recently, in 2012, based on years of scientific and policy work, the United States and New Zealand jointly proposed the creation, by CCAMLR, of a large MPA in the Ross Sea region. This region is home to McMurdo Station, the U.S. base for many of the scientific studies forming the basis of the MPA proposal. Other important research stations in the region include Scott Base (New Zealand), Mario Zucchelli Station (Italy), and Jang Bogo Station (Korea). Since 2012, the United States and New Zealand have been the principal advocates for the MPA proposal at CCAMLR, shepherding it through a series of reviews and revisions.  In 2015, trilateral negotiations with China resulted in that country’s endorsement of the proposed MPA.  This left Russia as the only remaining CCAMLR Member in opposition.

At the October 2016 CCAMLR meeting, Russia worked constructively on the MPA proposal.  After several days of intensive negotiation, U.S., New Zealand, and Russian delegations struck a deal on the MPA that ultimately formed the basis for consensus agreement by all CCAMLR Members.  Protecting the Ross Sea region not only conserves  invaluable marine resources for future generations and enhances resiliency to a changing climate, but also provides scientists with unparalleled opportunities for research about the impacts of climate change and other anthropogenic impacts on the ecosystem.  Such research will lead to discoveries that will benefit humankind.

What does this really mean?

Quite a lot, actually.

Symbolically, the RSRMPA demonstrates that governments can successfully work together to achieve great things, even while geopolitical discord over many other issues is strong and persistent. The RSRMPA is significant because it transcends any national jurisdiction; its establishment required the consensus agreement of 25 governments that are Members of CCAMLR, each with its own national interests.  Convincing many Members about the utility of the MPA wasn't too hard, but convincing all members was difficult and demanded rigorous negotiation, agreement on a shared set of objectives, and compromise by all.  This set of shared objectives and the agreed compromises are established for a period of 35 years, and may extend longer. 

Practically, the RSRMPA is designed to achieve a balance between protection and utilization interests while also providing opportunities for important research. Commercial fishing will be prohibited in 72% of the RSRMPA, while limited and prescribed commercial fishing for Antarctic toothfish (sold as Chilean seabass in the USA) and krill will be allowed in the remaining 28% of the MPA.  The limited and prescribed fishing will be purposefully designed to improve our knowledge about toothfish and krill and increase our ability to sustainably manage these fisheries.  Areas within the Ross Sea region and outside the MPA will be open to commercial fishing and still managed on the basis of best available science and in a manner consistent with CCAMLR’s ecosystem approach.  The RSRMPA will simultaneously protect the foraging ranges of significant proportions of the world’s populations of Adélie and Emperor penguins, Weddell and crabeater seals, and fish-eating killer whales.  Many less-familiar species, like the Antarctic silverfish and crystal krill that are key prey species, will also be protected.  The Members of CCAMLR have agreed to collaborate more extensively on all areas of research, from climate-change to life-history studies.

Objectives of the Ross Sea region MPA

The RSRMPA is the world's largest MPA, protecting 598,000 square miles (1.55 million square kilometers - that's more than twice the size of Texas!), but creating a large MPA was not an objective in its own right.  The RSRMPA is large because it aims to achieve multiple objectives simultaneously and doing so simply required a large MPA.

The Ross Sea region MPA includes two three zones that are designed to achieve specific protection and scientific objectives while allowing some fishing to occur within the MPA. The General Protection Zone (GPZ, identified by areas (i)-(iii) in Figure 1) is designed to provide representative protection of different habitats and bioregions, to mitigate or eliminate a number of specifically identified potential ecosystem threats from fishing, and to support existing and future scientific research and monitoring. The Special Research Zone (SRZ in Figure 1), in addition to contributing to representative protection and specific pelagic protection objectives, includes an important fishing area on the continental slope and is designed to serve as a scientific reference area to advance research to increase scientific understanding about the ecosystem effects of external forces like fishing and climate change and continue to inform the science-based management of the Ross Sea toothfish fishery. The Krill Research Zone (KRZ in Figure 1) is designed to investigate life-history hypotheses, biological parameters, ecological relationships, and variations in biomass and production of Antarctic krill.

By consensus agreement, CCAMLR has adopted the Ross Sea region MPA with the following objectives:

  1. to conserve natural ecological structure, dynamics, and function throughout the Ross Sea Region, at all levels of biological organization, by protecting habitats that are important to native mammals, birds, fishes, and invertebrates (e.g., the habitats illustrated in SC-CAMLR- XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 1);

  2. to provide reference areas for monitoring natural variability and long-term change, and in particular a Special Research Zone, in which fishing is limited to better gauge the ecosystem effects of climate change and fishing, to provide other opportunities for better understanding the Antarctic marine ecosystem, to underpin the Antarctic toothfish stock assessment by contributing to a robust tagging program, and to improve understanding of toothfish distribution and movement within the Ross Sea Region (see below Maps 2 & 11); 

  3. to promote research and other scientific activities (including monitoring) focused on marine living resources (e.g., by providing Annex 91-XX/C as a guidance document that scientists can leverage within their domestic funding processes);

  4. to conserve biodiversity by protecting representative portions of benthic and pelagic marine environments in areas where fewer data exist to define more specific protection objectives:
    a.   benthic bioregions (see below Map 4a or SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 3), and 
    b.   pelagic bioregions (see below Map 4b or SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 4);

  5. to protect large-scale ecosystem processes responsible for the productivity and functional integrity of the ecosystem (see below Map 5 or SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 5):
    a.   Ross Sea shelf front intersection with seasonal ice,
    b.   Polar front,
    c.   Balleny Islands and proximity,
    d.   Ross Sea polynya marginal ice zone, and
    e.   Eastern Ross Sea multi-year ice;

  6. to protect core distributions of trophically dominant pelagic prey species (see below Map 6 or SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 6):
    a.   Antarctic krill,
    b.   Crystal krill, and
    c.   Antarctic silverfish;

  7. to protect core foraging areas for land-based top predators or those that may experience direct trophic competition from fisheries (see below Map 7):
    a.   Adelie penguins(see SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 7),
    b.   Emperor penguins(see SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 7),
    c.   Weddell seals(see SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 8), and
    d.   Type C killer whales(see SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 8);

  8. to protect coastal locations of particular ecological importance (see below Map 8 or SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 9):
    a.   southern Ross Sea shelf persistent winter polynya,
    b.   recurrent coastal polynyas,
    c.   Terra Nova Bay,
    d.   Victoria Coast platelet ice formation zone, and
    e.   Pennell Bank polynya;

  9. to protect areas of importance in the life cycle of Antarctic toothfish (see below Map 9 or SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1 Figure 10):
    a.   Subadult toothfish settlement areas on the Ross Sea shelf,
    b.   Dispersal corridors for maturing toothfish, and
    c.   Adult toothfish feeding areas on the Ross Sea slope;

  10. to protect known rare or vulnerable benthic habitats (see below Map 10 or SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1  Figure 11):
    a.   Balleny Islands and adjacent seamounts,
    b.   Admiralty seamount,
    c.   Cape Adare slope,
    d.   Southeast Ross Sea slope,
    e.   McMurdo Sound, and Scott Seamount and adjacent underwater features; and
  11. to promote research and scientific understanding of krill, including in the Krill Research Zone in the northwestern Ross Sea region (see below Maps 2 & 11).

Priority Elements for Scientific Research and Monitoring

CCAMLR Members will collaboratively conduct a host of research and monitoring activities; the results of this work will be used as a basis to evaluate the effectiveness of the MPA. Studies should attempt to address the following questions:

  • Do the MPA boundaries continue to adequately encompass the priority populations, features and areas included pursuant of the MPA objectives?
  • What are the ecosystem roles of the identified habitats, processes, populations, life-history stages, or other priority features?
  • How are the priority features potentially affected by fishing, climate change, environmental variability, or other impacts?
  • Does the structure and function of the marine ecosystem differ between areas inside the MPA and areas outside the MPA, or do the populations or subpopulations of marine organisms that occur or forage inside the MPA differ from those that occur or forage outside the MPA?

 To that end, researchers will focus on specific studies such as:

  • Directed studies to address biological and ecological questions related to species demography and life history
  • Monitoring and research on pinnipeds and seabirds, including studies of reproductive biology and success as well as diets and foraging dynamics
  • At-sea surveys or censuses to estimate the distribution and abundance of marine mammals, seabirds, fishes and invertebrates
  • Acoustic surveys to map distribution and abundance of Antarctic silverfish and krill, including dedicated research on silverfish in Terra Nova Bay
  • Radio and archival tagging, remote sensing and shore-based population censuses of marine mammals and seabirds
  • Ecosystem modelling, informed by diet and stable isotope sampling of key trophic components
  • Targeted sampling of Ross Sea shelf and slope communities with focus on middle trophic level organisms
  • Investigate oceanographic drivers of phaeocystis- vs. diatom-dominated production and consequences for higher-level trophic ecosystem function
  • Vessel-based surveys of demersal fish and benthic communities of Pacific- Antarctic fracture zone
  • Repeat surveys of Admiralty and Scott seamounts
  • Continued annual survey for sub-adult toothfish in southern Ross Sea shelf
  • Focused tag deployments and/or electronic archival or acoustic tags to examine/ validate toothfish life-cycle, abundance, movement and behavioural hypotheses
  • Paired stratified surveys of slope habitats with contrasting local exploitation rates to monitor effects of fishing on Antarctic toothfish and demersal fishes
  • Surveys and sampling to investigate life history hypotheses and biological parameters, including stock structure, of Antarctic toothfish
  • Targeted surveys to investigate the importance of the Balleny Islands as a potential nursery area for Antarctic silverfish and Antarctic toothfish
  • Winter surveys to improve knowledge of spawning and eggs/larvae/early life stages of Antarctic toothfish
  • Surveys and sampling to investigate life history hypotheses, biological parameters, ecological relationships, and variation s in biomass and production of Antarctic krill
  • Meteorological and oceanographic research, including satellite remote sensing, to characterize physical properties and dynamics of phytoplankton and zooplankton.
  • Sea-ice remote sensing (type, concentration and extent)
  • Long-term monitoring of benthic ecosystem function
  • Development and validation of high resolution circulation model of the Ross Sea shelf and slope (e.g. ROMS), including resolving effects of sea-ice (especially polynyas), ice shelf cavity, cross-shelf exchange and deep bottom-water formation in the Ross Sea. Addition of biological model
  • Investigate deep bottom water formation (relevant to global oceanic circulation), slope water intrusion and cross-shelf nutrient exchange

Many CCAMLR Members have already initiated such research programs and plan to continue their work; other Members are encouraged to collaborate and contribute both resources and scientific expertise.  Adoption of the RSRMPA requires that a Research and Monitoring Plan be adopted for the MPA.  This plan will provide a standardized framework under which all interested Members may collect, access, and analyze the data that will be used both to evaluate the effectiveness of the MPA and to achieve its scientific objectives.  The Research and Monitoring Plan will be developed in the coming year and presented to CCAMLR during its annual meeting in October, 2017.

Further reading....

Below is a list of documents (by year) relevant to the Ross Sea region MPA development.  As documents become available, links will be added.  Please contact us if you need documents that are not linked below.


  • A brief review of information relevant to the establishment of a Krill Research Zone within the proposed Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area (CCAMLR WG-EMM-16/49)
  • A proposal for the establishment of a Ross Sea Region marine protected area (CCAMLR-XXXV/25 Rev.1)  


  • A proposal for the establishment of a Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area (CCAMLR-XXXIV/29 Rev. 1)
  • Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area: Reporting, Periodic Review and Period of Designation Elements (CCAMLR-XXXIV/BG/39)
  • Sea ice characterisation of the proposed Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area Special Research Zone (SC-CAMLR-XXXIV/BG/31)


  • A proposal for the establishment of a Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area (CCAMLR-XXXIII/21)
  • Chronology of previously submitted scientific documents, and updated maps and analyses supporting MPA planning in the Ross Sea region (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/23 Rev.1)
  • New research consistent with a proposed draft Research and Monitoring Plan for a Ross Sea region MPA (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-XXXIII/BG/24)


  • A draft plan for research and monitoring in the Ross Sea region, in association with spatial marine protection (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-IM-I/BG/03 Rev.1)
  • A proposal for the establishment of a Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area (CCAMLR-SM-II/04)
  • A proposal for the establishment of a Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area (CCAMLR-XXXII/27)
  • Analysis of potential threats from fishing to the objectives of a proposed Ross Sea region MPA (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-IM-I/09)
  • Reporting, review and period of designation in the Ross Sea Region MPA proposal (CCAMLR-XXXII/BG/38 Rev.1)
  • Review of the toothfish fishery in SSRU 881K from 1997–98 to 2011–12 and opportunities for fisheries research (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-IM-I-BG/02)
  • Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area: explanation of objectives supporting component areas (CCAMLR-XXXII/BG/40 Rev.1)
  • Science supporting the joint New Zealand-United States proposal for the establishment of a marine protected area in the Ross Sea Region (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-IM-I/08)


  • A customised Marine Spatial Planning tool in Arc-GIS to facilitate development and evaluation of Marine Protected Area scenarios in the CCAMLR Area (CCAMLR WG-EMM-12/56)
  • A proposal for the establishment of a Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (CCAMLR/XXXI/16 Rev.1)
  • A proposal for the Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (CCAMLR-XXXI/40)
  • Network characterisation of the food-web of the Ross Sea, Antarctica (CCAMLR WG-EMM-12/53)
  • Preliminary plan for research and monitoring in the Ross Sea region, in association with spatial marine protection (CCAMLR WG-EMM-12/57)
  • Research and monitoring to support an MPA in the Ross Sea Region (CCAMLR WG-EMM-12/46)


  • A Marine Protected Area scenario by New Zealand for the Ross Sea region (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-XXX/10)
  • An MPA scenario for the Ross Sea region (CCAMLR SC-CAMLR-XXX/09)
  • Marine Protected Area planning by New Zealand and the United States in the Ross Sea region (CCAMLR WS-MPA-11/25)


  • Bioregionalisation and Spatial Ecosystem Processes in the Ross Sea Region (CCAMLR WG-EMM-10/30)
  • Ross Sea Biodiversity, Part I: validation of the 2007 CCAMLR Bioregionalization Workshop results towards including the Ross Sea in a representative network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean (CCAMLR WG-EMM-10/11)
  • Ross Sea Bioregionalisation, Part II: Patterns of co-occurrence of mesopredators in an intact polar ocean ecosystem (CCAMLR WG-EMM-10/12)

Other relevant sites to check out....


US Department of State:

New Zealand Foreign Affairs & Trade:

Press Releases (does not imply endorsement of source):

Last modified: 11/9/2016