Most people don't give much though to what's happening at the "bottom of the world", but fortunately for all of us an international grouping called the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), comprising 24 nations plus the European Union, is concerned with protecting the pristine waters of the Antarctic's Ross Sea. The group is meeting in Hobart, Australia, this week to hopefully finalise approval of what will be the largest stretch of protected ocean in the world at 1.34 million sq km.
The importance of establishing such marine sanctuaries cannot be overstated. First and foremost, they are the most effective tool available to fight against species collapse due to overfishing. Quotas on the number and type of fish caught are necessary and should be kept in place, but they are very hard to verify.
On the other hand, when a section of the ocean has been designated as strictly off-limits to shipping vessels it is a fairly straightforward matter to monitor the zone through aerial reconnaissance and fine fishing trawlers which are guilty of trespassing.
A marine protected area (MPA) should also prohibit oil exploration in the fragile and extreme environment as it becomes more accessible due to climate change.
Currently MPAs make up a little over 1.42% of the global ocean, and members of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity have agreed that by 2020, "at least 10% of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, [should be] conserved."
The evidence shows that MPAs are able to make a real contribution to the rebounding of fish species that have been devastated by overfishing.
However, this depends on how devastated the fish stocks are and also on how effectively the protection is maintained.
Unfortunately in many instances the funding for monitoring them has not been adequate.
What is most exciting about the proposed Ross Sea MPA is that it will be imposed in a truly pristine marine environment. As well as an environmental treasure, it also offers an invaluable research tool. Scientists have determined that marine life is as abundant in the Ross Sea as it was thousands of years ago, and has the lowest level of disturbance from human activities among the world's oceans.
From the website of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition: "The Ross Sea is one of the last remaining stretches of ocean on Earth that has not been harmed by human activity.
"It is yet to be damaged extensively by overfishing, pollution or invasive species. The world now has a rare opportunity to protect the Ross Sea from a growing number of threats by declaring the continental shelf and slope of the Ross Sea a Marine Protected Area."
Unfortunately, that noble ambition has had to be scaled down a bit. The commission's charter requires the unanimous approval of all 25 members before an MPA can come into effect. Russia and the Ukraine shot down previous, larger proposed MPAs, but there are signs that they will be on board when it comes time to vote on the still significant new proposal, which covers an area twice the size of Texas.
The Russian delegation to a previous meeting of the commission in Germany questioned the organisation's legal mandate to create two huge protection areas off the coastline of Antarctica, prompting Steve Campbell, the campaign director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, to say: "It's a very odd objection, because CCAMLR clearly has the legal authority to establish MPAs."
The fact that Russia, a country in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere, has been blocking a marine protected area at the bottom of the world _ where the waters are often rough and inaccessible _ is telling. As stocks become endangered, fishing trawlers are going to the remote corners of the world wherever fish are still abundant.
But if this continues unregulated and protections are not put in place, it is only a matter of time before there is no place left for species to recover and they will crash beyond the point of recovery. It is therefore wise for people around the world, even in places hugging the equator like Thailand, to take an interest in what is happening in the frigid Antarctic waters of the Ross Sea, and in the meeting in Hobart this week.