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Less than one percent of the world's oceans are set aside as protected areas. The diplomats meeting now in Australia could substantially increase that figure. Delegates from 24 nations and the European Union have convened to consider proposals to create vast new marine protected areas around Antarctica. This same group met over the summer but didn't reach consensus. As NPR's Richard Harris reports, they're now considering a scaled-back proposal.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The group is known as CCAMLR, and it exists principally to regulate fishing around Antarctica. But some members of CCAMLR, including the United States, have been pushing the organization to create vast new marine protected areas. One would protect swaths of the Ross Sea, a second would apply to the waters off east Antarctica. The potential protected areas are getting a push from conservationists like Bob Zuur at WWF-New Zealand.

BOB ZUUR: Last year, I sailed through the Ross Sea. I saw dozens of whales, hundreds of seals and albatrosses, thousands of penguins. And that was just the wildlife on top of the water. The wildlife on the seafloor rivals that of the tropics. This area is really the Serengeti of the southern seas.

HARRIS: That advocacy is backed by the scientists who report to CCAMLR. Christopher Jones chairs the group's scientific committee. And at a news conference in Australia today, he said his committee agrees that human activity in the area should be limited in order to assure the long-term health of the ecosystem.

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Whether or not the science is adequate is not an issue here. What is the issue is I guess you'd say the political will.

HARRIS: In July, CCAMLR met but failed to reach a required consensus to set aside these areas. In particular, conservationists say Russia and Ukraine balked at creating huge zones where fishing would be off-limits forever. Toothfish, sold in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass, is harvested in some of these areas. The marine preserve would still leave some fishing grounds open, but it would close others, including sensitive spawning grounds. Bob Zuur from WWF says this remains an issue as the current round of talks gets underway.

ZUUR: Those issues are still on the table and we hope that they'll be addressed. And they should not result in fundamental challenges to what we're actually trying to achieve.

HARRIS: After failing to get consensus at the July meeting, the United States and New Zealand scaled back the size of their Ross Sea proposal by 40 percent. That would still make it the largest marine preserve in the world. Andrea Kavanagh from The Pew Charitable Trusts spoke at a news conference environmentalists held in Australia today.

ANDREA KAVANAGH: I think all of us were disappointed that the Ross Sea proposal was reduced in size. We are hopeful that this is the last time it'll be watered down. And if it's passed as it is, that we'd all be quite supportive of it.

HARRIS: Negotiators plan to spend more than a week now seeing if they can come to a consensus. And if they can, it could also open the door to discussions about more marine protected areas around Antarctica. These waters have had less human disturbance than any other oceans on Earth. Christopher Jones says his scientific committee has studied nine areas around Antarctica that are candidates for preservation.

JONES: To get a consensus on having this network in place, there's going to be quite a long process. We've already made a lot of progress, though.

HARRIS: One small preserve off the South Orkney Islands is already on the books. And creating one or two vast preserves at this meeting could be a huge step forward. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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