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Crouching Eagle, Frozen Dragon: China’s Increasing Role in the Antarctic in the Wake of U.S. Leaders

By Frederick Hemans | January 18, 2017

While the total impact of the United States’ 2016 election is yet to be fully determined, based on the incoming administration’s stated policy goals, there will likely be significant rollback of U.S. global leadership on environmental policy. While the incoming Trump administration’s views on both domestic and international marine conservation are murkier in comparison to their open rejection of most domestic environmental protection policies, the prospects of future significant multilateral agreements in this area increasingly slim over the next four years.

The election of Donald Trump as the United States’ 45th president will likely put a temporary halt to the progress on environmental protectionism moves made by the executive branch. Lost in the news of the United States Election cycle was the fact that President Obama has made a series of moves, via the National Monuments act established by former President Theodore Roosevelt, to establish domestic protected marine areas in remote areas of Hawaii and off the New England Coast. This added millions of hectares of ocean as protected areas, despite protests from fishing interests. As his second term was ends, Obama looks to cement his environmental legacy at a time when his moves would gain little attention as both major political parties were wrapping up their party conventions and moving into the heart of the election season. What is most important about Obama’s moves to create marine protected zones is not the specific protection zones he authorized, but that it sets up a precedent for the executive branch to push for greater action both domestically and on a global scale.

Internationally, many recent successes in establishing marine reserves and limiting commercial fishing were made possible in part because of the advocacy of outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry in negotiations with roadblock nations such as China and Russia. Including these issues in the broader global politics allowed for some significant progress in the Antarctic region, most notably the establishment of the world’s largest marine protected area, located in the Ross Sea of the coast of Antarctica. This area, over 1.5 million square kilometers in area, could have been a great framework for future multilateral agreements on limiting human impact in the oceans, as these provisions are located within the framework of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR), the multilateral body overseeing the region. However, as oil executive Rex Tillerson is set to become the Trump Administration’s Secretary of State, he is highly likely to de-emphasize and neglect any agreements made by the previous administration, especially if these multilateral agreements were reached by offering concessions in other areas.

Despite their recent agreement to the establishment of some conservation measures, China is gearing up for a massive push into the Antarctic waters still open for commercial fishing. China’s agenda for the region may in fact be more concerning than those of Antarctic fishing rivals Russia and Finland, as market forces have pushed China to shift almost exclusively to the harvesting of Antarctic krill sub-species Euphausia Superba. The head of the Chinese Agricultural Development Group Liu Shenli recently stated that China aims to harvest one to two million tons of krill annually, up drastically from average annual catch of approximately 13,500 metric tons between 2010 and 2013. Also of concern is the prospect of an increase of illegal fishing in the Antarctic by Chinese vessels as demand for Antarctic krill increases, which have  been involved in illegal fishing activities as recently as 2011.

Such activity at the proposed levels, coupled with other nations continued Antarctic commercial fishing activities, is deeply troubling. Due to both the remote location as well as the seasonal variability of the Krill population, the estimates of total circumpolar biomass fluctuate drastically. While this population is high enough to sustain the current diverse ecosystem in the Ross Sea and elsewhere, this implication of China and other nations reducing the total biomass of krill annually through commercial fishing, coupled with the still greatly unknown total effects of climate change, could lead to a trophic crisis in the circumpolar region within our lifetime. Regionally, population levels of fur seals, penguins, and other species high on the trophic scale have been decreasing, in some cases rapidly. The overwhelming evidence for this collapse is a combination of direct human regional activity as well as the global effects of climate change.

Additional leadership from the U.S. and regional allies is key to building upon future multilateral agreements on marine conservation. As it is looking increasingly likely that the U.S. recedes in participation from the CCAMLR and other governing bodies, it will be up to the E.U. and, more importantly, regional oceanic nations New Zealand and Australia, to fill the vacuum. New Zealand was a key partner in the recent unanimous agreement to create the Ross Sea MPA, and it could be a key voice in changing policy for the Antarctic Circumpolar Area, most notably by insisting on the use of new climate science to adjust annual fishing yields. When the Trump administration takes office January 2017 and begins participating on the global scale, we will have a much clearer idea of the overall trajectory of global marine conservation.


Frederick Hemans is a first year MIA student at GPS. His focus is on International Environmental Policy and China. He is also a writer for UCSD's student-run newspaper, The Guardian.


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