This vast region, which occupies nearly 40% of the world's surface, faces increasing threats to its fragile habitats.
During the 2007-2009 International Polar Year, WWF is asking parties to the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) for their support in increasing protection of the region. Networks of marine protected areas are critically needed to help unique populations of fish, seabirds and marine animals including whales, seals, albatrosses, and penguins.
David Nussbaum, WWF-UK's Chief Executive said: "The International Polar Year offers a unique opportunity for nations to safeguard a region of outstanding environmental importance. It is vital that countries start immediate multilateral action to conserve Antarctica and the Southern Ocean for future generations."
Over the last 50 years the Antarctica Peninsula has seen some of the greatest temperature changes on the planet, having warmed in places by as much as 3°C - a rate five times the global average. This is impacting on Antarctic wildlife, which is already under pressure from unsustainable fishing and the spread of invasive species such as rats, mice and rabbits. Scientists have already noted the decline of rockhopper, chinstrap and adelie penguin populations due to a reduction in the extent of sea ice. Krill, the foundation of the Antarctic food chain, is also facing a huge reduction in numbers, putting the entire marine ecosystem at risk.
Constance Johnson, manager of WWF's Antarctic and Southern Ocean Initiative said: "WWF is calling for an ecologically representative network of marine protected areas covering at least 10% of the 35 million sq km Southern Ocean by 2012. Creating a network of marine protected areas will help reduce the impact of other pressures in the region such as fisheries and tourism, helping to sustain a healthier marine environment which is better able to adapt to rising temperatures."
Climate change is adding to the immense pressure already faced by the Southern Ocean region. Illegal pirate fishing operators continue to plunder valuable and threatened fish stocks and kill tens of thousands of seabirds each year, and the problem of albatrosses being caught by long-line fisheries is well known. With the region becoming more accessible than ever before, there is also an increasing risk of further introduction of non-native species and organisms and a major shipping incident in the area. Whether the Antarctic continent and Southern Ocean can survive these threats and the impact of climate change will be determined in the next few decades.