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Photographer John Weller's View of Antarctica

Saving the Ross Sea Through Imagery

For 10 years I had followed inspiration through the woods of the Sierras and the deserts of the Southwest, camera and pen in hand. But in 2004, I read something that focused my attention 8,500 miles away. I knew right away what I had to do.

Sea Ice, Adelie penguins

In his paper “Acquiring a Base Datum of Normality for a Marine Ecosystem: The Ross Sea, Antarctica,” Antarctic ecologist David Ainley recounts a devastating assessment from the National Science Foundation’s OEUVRE report, which states, “Little if any of the ocean remains unaffected by fisheries, agricultural runoff, sewage, aquaculture and industry.” I tried to understand that statement, tried to comprehend the size of the ocean. When I stand at the edge, the ocean seems to go on forever. It seemed impossible that we could have damaged something so big. But the evidence is there. The same story is playing out all over the world. We have pushed ocean ecosystems to the brink of collapse worldwide.

Every major scientific body echoes the same warning. The recently released Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which amassed information from 1,300 researchers in 95 countries, reports that 25 percent of fisheries are in severe decline. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 60 percent of fisheries in the Southern Ocean are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. Overall global fish landings have been in decline since before the 1980s, despite the best efforts to develop more efficient technologies and management practices. We have eaten our way through an estimated 90 percent of the world’s top predatory fishes. And this destruction is not limited to these fish or their ecosystems. It extends to the human communities that depend on them.

Ainley’s paper goes on to assert that the Ross Sea in Antarctica is the last pristine open-ocean ecosystem on Earth. Again, I had to stop and think about this—the last place. But even now, a fast-expanding fishery in the Ross Sea for Antarctic toothfish, sold as Chilean sea bass, means that this last place—the last fully functioning open ocean ecosystem—will soon be gone. By David’s estimate, we have about five years.

Even further, the paper intimates that if we want to become sustainable, we need to understand how marine ecosystems function, and the Ross Sea is the last laboratory. But already, in the short life of the fishery, it has become 25 times more difficult for a scientist to catch a toothfish in the Southern Ross Sea. Loss of this top predator would change the very structure of the ecosystem. If we damage this last place beyond repair, that natural structure will disintegrate, and with it will go our last chance to understand.

Seal

The idea struck hard. I chewed on it for a week, then wrote to David Ainley and requested a meeting. Two weeks later I met him at his home in California. His words were fire. As we talked, I realized that I had a duty to try to do something. We committed to each other to tell the story.

It is important to understand that David is not alone in his assessment. When we started to work together, David and I sent out an e-mail to 17 top Antarctic scientists with expertise in all different parts of the ecosystem, asking for guidance and support. Sixteen responded, all positively, within the day. One scientist called me on a satellite phone from his field camp in Alaska and we talked for an hour.

Since that time, the value of the Ross Sea has received independent validation from other scientists and scientific bodies including the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, the 2008 World Conservation Congress, and the World Conservation Union. In their 2008 paper, Ben Halpern and his colleagues’ analysis of human impact on marine systems also identifies the Ross Sea as the least impacted marine ecosystem left on Earth.

So we were off. We started to develop a team. We recruited filmmakers, educators, web designers and strategists. We received guidance and support from powerful media executives, members of congress, businesspeople, educators, philanthropists, and organizations. After nearly three years of work, I saw the ice for the first time.

Minke whale

The Ross Sea is in danger for a simple reason: too few know what is at stake. People can only value what they know, and this place is too far away and its issues are often abstract and depressing. For most people, the Ross Sea is invisible. The Last Ocean project aims to change that, bringing the Ross Sea to life, creating a broad base of support for the protection of this special place. This growing community will be able to do what the Ross Sea cannot: speak in its defense.

Our world today is filled with global crisis, from war and genocide to climate change and faltering economies. But this issue is equally important. The Ross Sea story is not just about science, not just about the incredible organisms that live at the edge of the world. It is a story of interconnected communities. It is our story, the story of our struggle to become sustainable. And if enough of us speak up, we may be able to write the next chapter. Adélie penguins, Weddell seals, minke whales, scientists and Southern Ocean fisherman are all bound together. And despite our dire problems, I remain staunchly optimistic that we can unite our efforts and evolve. For the truth is that, in the face exponentially increasing pressure on world resources, we are all part of a single community and only in its balance can we find peace.

Collage of images

 

John Weller

John Weller, a SeaWeb fellow, is a photographer and writer based in Boulder, Colorado. He published his first book of photographs and essays, Great Sand Dunes National Park: Between Light and Shadow, in 2004. He received a 2009 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation to support his continuing work to promote protection of the Ross Sea.

The Last Ocean is a multimedia outreach project that aims to bring the Ross Sea to life and promote conservation efforts in what is perhaps the most pristine open-ocean ecosystem left on Earth. You can also find out more about the project on its Facebook page and on Twitter at LastOcean.