15/08/2013 17:30 BST | Updated 15/10/2013 06:12 BST

Poles Apart? Addressing the Big Freeze in Marine Conservation Policy

Lecturing the Russians doesn't work. If 70 years of communism wasn't proof enough of that, then it was provided again in Bremerhaven the other week when Russia staunchly opposed the creation of massive new marine protected areas around Antarctica despite a letter to President Putin from worthies such as James Cameron, Sir Richard Branson, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Sylvia Earle imploring him to support the creation of such things in the Ross Sea, one of the most pristine seas on Earth, and in Eastern Antarctica. Well, Russia didn't support them and I can't say I'm wholly surprised.

What does surprise me is the tone of disbelief adopted by some of the nations and NGOs involved in campaigning for Antarctic marine reserves at the Russians' curious position that all marine protected areas outside areas of national jurisdiction are illegal. Have they lost their sense of humour? As a veteran of climate change negotiations I am fully familiar with the old Russian bargaining ploy of inserting spurious scientific and legal arguments which take time to break down. They are telling us this is something they don't want to do and we have to listen very carefully to what they actually want if we want things to progress. The thing we, the nations who do want marine reserves around Antarctica, should do is find out what matters to them and try to deliver some of it instead of bleating incredulously. Perhaps it takes an old world person to point that out.

The campaigners for Antarctic marine reserves are almost certainly right about the law - marine reserves can perfectly well be created by CCAMLR and have been before - but they have been diplomatically wrong from the outset. They are going to have to learn the lesson that telling recalcitrant fishing nations that something should happen - i.e. the US working up a proposal with one other nation, New Zealand and trying to impose it on all the other parties - does not necessarily make it happen, especially in a treaty that is based on consensus, such as that presided over by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) of which Russia is a founder member. You have to find reasons they might want to do it, too.

So the environmentalists are right to say that Russia's legal objections to marine reserves in international waters are poppycock.

After all Russia went along with the creation of the only marine protected area within the Antarctic convergence off the South Orkneys in 2012. But that isn't going to deal with the problem of dodgy diplomacy that has dogged the whole process of proposing the Ross Sea as a marine reserve. There has been an unfortunate sense that NGOs have been projecting American imperial power by other means and there has been too little consensus building from the start.

This summer was a disaster for those of us who want to see large marine reserves protecting the world's last marine wildernesses. We can only hope it is turned round quickly at the next meeting of CCAMLR in Hobart, Tasmania, this October. That will require talking to, rather than sounding off at, Russia. And anyone else proposing to create other marine reserves around Antarctica is likely to conclude that an approach which gets fishing nations involved early on stands a greater likelihood of success.