A 2 million-square-kilometre patchwork of marine reserves surrounding Antarctica could protect an exquisite and unique ecosystem, but tensions between countries responsible for conserving life in the southern seas could put the whole project in jeopardy.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is currently meeting in Hobart. It will decide on Friday whether to create marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica, which could double the area of the world’s oceans currently protected.

CCAMLR’s decision-making process requires unanimous agreement to create policy. The 25 members are all states actively engaged in research or harvesting activities in the region, and delegations often carry fishing industry lobbyists and conservationists side by side. Julia Jabour, leader of the Ocean and Antarctic Policy Research Program at the University of Tasmania, says CCAMLR has successfully juggled scientific research, fishing interests, geopolitics and conservation activities for more than 30 years without coming to a serious political impasse.

But she says the debate around the MPAs has destabilised the commission to the point where she holds concerns for its survival. “What it’s doing is starting to alienate the members into blocs … My fear is that this kind of thing is likely to bring CCAMLR undone, and yet it’s held up around the world as the best fisheries and conservation convention there is.”

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Antarctic activist Lyn Goldsworthy says there are concerns over the sustainability of current fishing in the region, indicating CCAMLR is failing in its primary objective: the conservation of life in Antarctic waters (defined in Article II of the convention). She says the battle over MPAs is symptomatic of a larger struggle, one that pits fishing interests against conservation. “I completely agree that we are on the edge of CCAMLR breaking down. But I’m not altogether sure it’s MPAs that’ll be the break down … It seems that some fishing nations don’t understand the conservation basis [for CCAMLR] and would prefer that fishing access into the future was now the primary aim.”

The MPAs have had a troubled passage, with this meeting the third time in 12 months delegates have attempted to actualise the plans (MPAs have been agreed to in principle since 2011). Australia, New Zealand, the US, France and the EU are the major sponsors. But progress has been stymied by Russia, Ukraine, Norway and to a lesser extent China, which have raised issues with the scientific and legal basis for the reserves.

Fishing interests, both present and prospective, are driving resistance to the MPAs. Right or wrong, says Jabour, countries like Russia feel affronted by the notion that other nations will tell them where they can and cannot fish. With increasingly testy relations between Russia and the US thrown into the mix, consensus is proving difficult to find.

This is despite CCAMLR’s scientific committee endorsing the proposals, a coalition of 30 NGOs lobbying hard for them and the majority of CCAMLR delegations supporting them. According to advocates, the MPAs are necessitated by two major threats to the Southern Ocean’s biodiversity: climate change and overfishing. Pew Environment says: “Only a permanent, comprehensive system of fully protected marine reserves will ensure the long-term conservation of this region’s extraordinary life.”

Steve Campbell, campaign director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, says: “Our concern is that as more fisheries around the world are under increasing pressure, there is more pressure on the areas which are less exploited.”

Delegates at the meeting say the most likely scenario is that fishing interests will significantly redefine the proposals. Any successful reserves to emerge from the meeting on Friday will almost certainly be greatly reduced in size and have a highly controversial “sunset clause” attached.

Whatever happens, CCAMLR’s days out of the spotlight are surely over. The choice isn’t exactly between consensus and conservation, but almost. Certainly the issue exposes a less consensual diplomatic environment around a fertile ocean where some countries see the opportunity for conservation and others just see opportunity.