The story of Antarctic marine conservation efforts often feels like the myth of Sisyphus, the Greek king who was condemned to spend eternity struggling to roll a boulder up a hill. For more than 50 years, nations have successfully worked together under the Antarctic Treaty System to protect Antarctica as a peaceful forum for scientific research and environmental preservation. But the Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica and is home to some of the most pristine marine ecosystems on earth, hasn’t been so lucky.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the organization responsible for managing and protecting the Southern Ocean, has struggled to fulfill the mission of its name and establish meaningful protections of Antarctic marine ecosystems. Like Sisyphus, eternally pushing his boulder towards the summit, the Antarctic marine preservation movement seems doomed to repeat its campaign cycle forever, always in sight of the finish line but never able to cross it.

Most recent concerns have focused on CCAMLR’s failed attempts to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in critical Southern Ocean regions. In 2002, The World Summit on Sustainable Development set the goal of establishing a global network of MPAs in Antarctica by 2012—a deadline that CCAMLR formally adopted in 2009. After that deadline came and went without new protected zones, however, CCAMLR convened a special meeting in Bremerhaven, Germany, in July 2013, to consider two specific proposals for new MPAs: One in the Ross Sea area, which was proposed by New Zealand and the United States, and one in East Antarctica, which was concurrently proposed by Australia, France, and the European Union.

CCAMLR operates on a consensus model, which means that any one of its 25 member states can unilaterally veto a proposal—and that’s exactly what happened in Bremerhaven, when Russia and the Ukraine stunned the international community by blocking the proposals with little explanation. In anticipation of CCAMLR’s upcoming meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, from October 23 to November 1, New Zealand and the United States released a revised (and, some argue, significantly reduced) version of their Ross Sea proposal, but hopes remain low that the forthcoming meeting will result in much meaningful action.

The organization’s repeated failures to live up to its own name and mandate raise blunt but inevitable questions: Has CCAMLR’s paralytic consensus model transformed the conservation body into little more than a marginally effective fisheries management organization? If so, just what will it take to successfully and effectively protect Antarctica’s marine ecosystems?

“Those are serious questions that CCAMLR will have to ask itself if things remain at this stalemate, especially if we have countries that seem increasingly willing to isolate themselves,” said Andrea Kavanagh, the director of the Southern Ocean Sanctuaries Campaign at Pew Charitable Trusts. “I don't think it was ever envisioned that the consensus model would serve as a means for someone to block progress on something that everyone had already agreed was important. To use consensus against CCAMLR itself—well, it seems like bad faith negotiations.”

The ingredients required to establish meaningful, effective protection of these fragile ecosystems are a complex cocktail of science and policy, Kavanagh said. She emphasized that for protections to be effective, the MPAs must be “permanent or indefinite”—that is, they cannot have a firm expiration date. (The current revised proposal has a “soft review” clause that would go into effect after 25 years, although Kavanagh expressed concerns that New Zealand has indicated a willingness to negotiate on that aspect of the proposal.) To be effective, she added that the protected areas must also be large enough to cover a diverse range of species and ecosystems—also cause for concern, since the newly revised proposal reduced the size of the proposed MPA by 40 percent, from roughly the size of Alaska to roughly twice the size of Texas.

“When it comes to MPAs, size does matter,” said Kavanagh. “In the Ross Sea area, for example, you have a lot of different ecosystems: the shelf and slope, sea mounts, and an area they suspect is a breeding and spawning ground for toothfish. It was a disappointment to us that the revised proposal lost some of the diversity of ecosystems they had protected, especially when we still don’t know where Russia and the Ukraine stand. We have no idea if they’ll be satisfied by this.”

But Evan Bloom, the head of the American delegation to the Antarctic conservation commission, defended the revised proposal, which he said is grounded in a critical mix of scientific recommendation and political considerations.

“The United States feels very strongly that you have to adhere to the best available science,” said Bloom. “This is a consensus-based organization, and we heard some important comments from scientists from other countries. We felt it was very important to acknowledge the concerns and views of those scientists, and to revise the proposal accordingly so it will be more attractive to a number of countries, and come closer to being adopted.”

Bob Zuur, the manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean initiative, added that despite the occasionally frustrating limitations of the consensus requirement, that model is often an unavoidable aspect of international law.

“I think we need to recognize that CCAMLR is operating in the high seas, and in international law, the reality is that consensus is often required,” said Zuur. “If a country doesn't agree with the rules, it can pull out and withdraw its commitment.” He added that it is important to make a distinction between the behavior of CCAMLR as an institution and the behavior of individual contrarian member states.

But CCAMLR’s recent failure to establish protected areas in the Southern Ocean isn’t the first time the organization has been choked by the paralytic effect of its consensus model. In 2012, for example, after a South Korean fishing vessel illegally took more than half a million dollars worth of toothfish from the Southern Ocean, Korea was able to unilaterally stop CCAMLR from blacklisting that vessel. In 2003, the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO) presented CCAMLR with a report that identified 12 countries as being involved in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and poaching of protected toothfish—but since several CCAMLR member states were included on the list, no punitive action was taken.

“This is a rather significant indicator of CCAMLR’s inability to deal effectively with the problem of IUU fishing in the Convention Area,” concluded an Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition report after the 2003 incident. “The regime that is supposed to be responsible and capable of managing the marine living resources of Antarctica is failing through the constant undermining of a small group of parties to the Convention.”

John Hocevar, the Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, said that although CCAMLR was founded on principles of biodiversity preservation, the rise of high-profit fishing industries, such as toothfish (which is often marketed as Chilean sea bass and informally known within the industry as “white gold”), transformed CCAMLR into something that is largely indistinguishable from any other fishery management organization. Hocevar added that several conservation organizations, including Greenpeace, have such serious doubts about CCAMLR’s potential to implement effective conservation proposals and they’ve begun working with the United Nations to adopt a new agreement under the Law of the Sea that would not require consensus.

“The consensus model doesn't just prevent things from being agreed upon, it prevents them from even being tried,” said Hocevar. “There are smart, forward-looking, science-driven policies that no one is going to introduce because it's clear from the beginning that it wouldn't get the support of every single member.”

“We haven’t done as much damage in the waters around Antarctica as we have in other areas of the world, so we can still have some sense of what a relatively unimpacted ecosystem looks like,” Hocevar added. “We live on the water planet. The oxygen from every second breath we take is generated from algae that live in the ocean. Seafood provides protein for well over a billion people. Everything is connected—and this is the place for us to try to get it right.”

Images: John B. Weller courtesy The Pew Charitable Trusts.