Optimism on marine reserve for Antarctica

Antarctica is a step closer to getting the world's largest marine reserve under a proposal hammered out at international talks in Hobart.

The wildlife-rich Ross Sea, south-east of Australia, could have the world's largest single marine reserve, after New Zealand and the US are said to have overcome differences in fishing still to be conducted there.

As part of the nearly 2 million square kilometre reserve, a special scientific zone will be offered as an additional layer protection, observers said.

The Ross Sea is the centrepiece of marine reserve efforts to go before a meeting of the 25-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in Hobart.

A joint proposal by Australia, France and the European Union for a set of reserves covering 1.9 million square kilometres in the East Antarctic region is also before the meeting for decision this week.

A third proposal, to make marine reserves of Antarctic seas suddenly exposed by ice-shelf collapse through climate change, failed to advance.

To succeed, the proposals need to be accepted in consensus by all 25 nations. The task of persuading China and Russia was particularly difficult, observers said.

The Ross Sea plan threatened to founder when New Zealand decided to revamp its reserves away from an agreed proposal with the US, in order to preserve a rich fishery for the Antarctic toothfish. Geoff Keey, New Zealand co-ordinator of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, said it failed to show conservation leadership.

However in talks over recent days New Zealand is understood to have settled a disagreement on boundaries.