A major international conference on the Antarctic marine environment has failed to agree on new conservation areas despite hearing evidence the southern continent is facing a range of crises, including historically low sea ice levels, plummeting wildlife numbers and the first cases of bird flu.

Longstanding proposals to create nearly 4m sq km of marine protected areas did not receive consensus support largely due to opposition from the Russian government delegation, which arrived late due to visa-related delays and then repeatedly stalled discussions, according to multiple sources at the meeting in Hobart.

With significant agreement not possible, the meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in Hobart pushed debate on proposals for protected areas near the western Antarctic peninsula, in the Weddell Sea and in east Antarctica into next year.

Observers said the two-week meeting of 26 national governments and the European Union was presented with scientific evidence that the conservation areas were needed to preserve critical foraging and breeding grounds for penguins, toothfish, seals, and whales, and to reach a globally agreed goal of protecting 30% of oceans by 2030.

WWF Antarctic conservation manager Emily Grilly said it was “utterly disappointing” that there had been no significant progress after more than a decade of discussions, and a year of unprecedented change in Antarctica including first known cases of H5N1 bird flu detected in the region.

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