Sydney: Campaigners Monday urged global leaders to put aside differences and create two vast Antarctic marine sanctuaries to protect one of the world's last untouched wildernesses and a unique array of species including whales and giant squid.
The fate of the plans to shield critical areas of ocean around the frozen continent is in the hands of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which opened its annual meeting in Hobart.
The talks run until October 30, with both an Australian-backed East Antarctic scheme and a US-New Zealand bid for a protected zone in the Ross Sea blocked four times so far due to a lack of consensus among the 24 member countries and the European Union.
"Antarctica is one of the world's last untouched wildernesses and is critical for scientific research, both for studying how intact marine ecosystems function and for monitoring the impacts of climate change," said Maritza Schaefer, Greenpeace International's global campaign leader for oceans.
"Fully protected marine reserves are the single most powerful tool that CCAMLR has for fulfilling its mandate and protecting the astounding array of Antarctica's marine life and enabling the Southern Ocean ecosystem to best withstand the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification."
Environmentalists say the Southern Ocean is home to more than 10,000 unique species, including penguins, whales, seals and colossal squid, as well as being a region critical for scientific research.
Mark Epstein, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, added that "CCAMLR promised that this protection would come by 2012, yet the process has been stalled for the last four meetings".
"Global leaders -- many of whom are CCAMLR members -- have a responsibility to take action now, ensuring these marine protected areas come into force at this meeting," he said.
Australia, France and the European Union first put forward a bid for a 1.9 million square kilometre (760,000 square mile) Marine Protected Area encompassing seven stretches of the pristine continent in 2011.
But it was again knocked back last year with Russia and China citing geo-political issues and concerns about its size.