The Ross Sea in Antarctica will become the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) after an international agreement was made at the meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Tasmania, Australia.

After five years of deadlock, representatives from the European Union and 24 individual countries have agreed that over 1.5 million squared kilometres of the Southern Ocean will be protected from commercial fishing. The area, said to be the Earth’s last pristine marine ecosystem, is approximately the same size as Spain and France and will be protected for 35 years.

The importance of this agreement is heightened in the face of recent news that the world’s wildlife populations have declined by almost 60 percent since 1970. International waters will now host the first marine park in The Ross Sea, setting a precedent for further action to help achieve the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s suggestion that 30 percent of the world’s oceans should be protected.

This region is considered essential to the planet’s ecosystems – nutrients that are upwelled from deep waters there are taken around the world by sea currents. The Ross Sea is home to around 16,000 species, including 38 percent of the world’s Adelie penguin populations, 30 percent of the world’s Antarctic petrels and six percent of the world’s Minke whales.

Negotiations for the MPA were stalled by Russia and China, who have large fishing industries in the Southern Ocean and were concerned that other uses of the ocean, such as seabed mining, would be threatened. However, last year China cooperated with Russia following suit in recent weeks.

The turnaround comes just a few months after Russian Vladimir Putin announced 2017 as a special Year of Ecology for the nation.The time period of protection has been the subject of scrutiny. During negotiations, China stated that 20 years would be sufficient. Conservationists say that the agreed compromise of 35 years is far too short. Chris Johnson, WWF-Australia’s ocean science manager, was concerned that the new MPA does not meet the World Conservation Union’s standards of having permanent protection.

Andrea Kavanagh, the director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work for the Pew Charitable Trusts, was more optimistic. “I’m positive that in 35 years, the conservation values that come out of the Ross Sea, the protections will be renewed”, he said. “The world will be a different place in 35 years.”

Another compromise of the US-New Zealand led proposal is the designation of special zones where krill and toothfish may be fished for research.

By 1st December 2017 the marine protected area will be enforced. Despite this benchmark agreement, a decline of two thirds is predicted for the planet’s wildlife by 2020. There is still more to be done. “For me this is an issue about justice – justice between generations,” said Lewis Pugh, the UN Patron for the Oceans and long-time campaigner.

“There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with us destroying our oceans so our children and grandchildren have absolutely nothing.”