An international coalition of countries agreed on Friday to create the world's largest marine sanctuary, setting aside nearly 600,000 square miles of ocean near Antarctica for conservation and scientific study.
The agreement includes 24 countries as well as the European Union and divides the protected area in the Ross Sea into zones that will allow different levels of activity. More than 70 percent of the protected area will be a "no-take" zone, with no fishing allowed. Other sections will permit some harvesting of fish and krill for scientific research.
"The Ross Sea Region marine protected area (MPA) will safeguard one of the last unspoiled ocean wilderness areas on the planet – home to unparalleled marine biodiversity and thriving communities of penguins, seals, whales, seabirds, and fish," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
"This decision represents an almost unprecedented level of international cooperation regarding a large marine ecosystem," said Andrew Wright, Executive Secretary of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
The Ross Sea is a 1.9 million square mile, horseshoe-shaped body of water that sits off the coast of Antarctica. It is considered one of the last truly wild stretches of ocean on the planet, and is home to unique species such as the colossal squid, the toothfish, a large portion of the global population of Adélie and emperor penguins and Weddell seals, as well as half of the world's killer whales.
The U.S. and New Zealand first proposed the protected area in 2011, and the countries involved have been negotiating the details ever since. The new agreement takes effect in December of 2017.
"It has been well worth the wait because there is now agreement among all members that this is the right thing to do and they will all work towards the MPA's successful implementation," Wright said.