By Alexandra Hudson
BERLIN (Reuters) - Proposals to create vast marine sanctuaries to protect Antarctic wildlife from fishing and other human activity failed on Tuesday due to opposition from Russia, environmental observers said.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a 25-member inter-governmental body, was considering two proposals to designate large tracts of ocean off-limits for almost all activities aside from scientific exploration.
However, at a meeting of the organization, Russia, backed by Ukraine, raised concerns about the body's legal ability to create such zones, according to environmental campaign groups. Consensus of all CCAMLR members was required to create the sanctuaries.
The Russian and Ukrainian delegations were not immediately available for comment.
Environmentalists said their hopes of safeguarding an unspoiled habitat for whales, fish and penguins had been dashed.
"That we missed a critical opportunity to protect some of the most pristine ocean areas on earth is a loss for the ecosystem and the international community," said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Southern Ocean Sanctuaries Campaign, which observed the negotiations in the German city of Bremerhaven.
The head of Germany's CCAMLR delegation, Walter Duebner, said talks would continue in three months, when Russia's additional legal concerns would be addressed. An earlier round of negotiations last November also ended without agreement.
CCAMLR, which includes the European Union, China, Brazil and the United States, was founded in 1982 to protect Antarctic marine life. In 2009 it succeeded in granting marine protected area status for the South Orkney Islands, off Antarctica, which restricts fishing.
During two days of negotiations, delegates examined a U.S. and New Zealand-backed proposal on protecting the Ross Sea, which is seven times the size of Germany, and a European Union, French and Australian-backed proposal for the waters of East Antarctica.
Duebner said other delegations were surprised when the Russians raised legal concerns, particularly as the South Orkney marine protected area already exists.
"From the papers Russia presented, and reading between the lines, it appears that they did not want the United States and New Zealand determining which areas could be fished and which couldn't," he said.
The United Nations has committed to classifying 10 percent of the world's coastal waters and oceans as protected areas by 2020 - up from 2 percent at present. Agreement within CCAMLR on Tuesday would have doubled the amount of protected ocean.
Many fishing fleets are looking south because stocks nearer home are depleted and some nations worry about shutting off large areas of the oceans to commercial use.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)