Update: Russia has blocked the creation of the world's largest ocean reserves off the coast of Antarctica. The conservation commission requires unanimous agreement from all of its member states to create reserves, but the Russian government, which holds fishing licenses in the area, raised legal objections.

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Millions of square miles of ocean off the coast of Antarctica could potentially become a marine sanctuary protecting thousands of species from exploitation — unless Russia and China object, that is.

The possible ocean sanctuary — which would be the world's largest — will be discussed next week by the member nations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which will meet in Germany beginning on July 21. Two separate proposals are on the table to protect large stretches of ocean around the frozen continent, either of which would be several times larger than the size of Texas.

The first proposal — from the United States and New Zealand — would protect 888,000 square miles of the Ross Sea, near the Pacific Ocean. The proposal would protect key breeding zones for Antarctic silverfish (a.k.a. Chilean sea bass) and feeding zones for seals, whales and penguins. The bulk of the main protected zone would be a "no take" area, where commercial fishing would not be allowed. A special research zone would also be established to monitor the toothfish fishery.

The second proposal — from Australia, France and the European Union — would protect 733,000 square miles off the coast of eastern Antarctica in the Southern Ocean. It would also protect key habitats for biodiversity, including a key area for endemic mollusks, a foraging area for two species of penguins, and an important nursery area for Antarctic krill. This proposal also includes "reference areas" to monitor the effects of fishing outside of protected zones. The reference areas will also be used to study how climate change is impacting the region's ecosystems.

The signatories to CCAMLR — established in 1982 to conserve Antarctic marine life — discussed these proposals before, but Germany, China and the Ukraine objected, saying the protected marine areas would have too big of an impact on commercial fishing in the region. At least one of the proposals has been slightly amended since the original discussion to preserve fishing rights as well as biodiversity.

If either proposal is passed, it would be a critical step toward preserving the biodiversity of the southern oceans. "Fishing has so accelerated on many parts of the globe that 85 percent of fish stocks are over-exploited," Andrea Kavanagh of Pew Environment told Agence France-Presse. "Creating those protecting areas would more than double the amount of protected oceans in the world."

"This could be a historic first step leading to more marine reserves in other places," the U.S. State Department's Evan Bloom told USA Today. "If we can't do it in Antarctica, it raises the question of where else we could create the large reserves elsewhere that many people would like to see."

Update, July 16: Russia today filed a legal objection to the proposed marine sanctuaries, putting them off the table until the next CCAMLR meeting in October.

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Oceans around Antarctica could become massive protected sanctuary
Two proposals up for international vote would have protected hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, and the creatures that reside inside.