The industrial smoke stacks have arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula. The area famous for its scenic, rugged landscapes and abundant South Polar wildlife has become the target for the trawlers and factory ships of the growing krill fisheries.
Many people think of krill (Euphausia superba) as microscopic creatures, but in fact, each individual can grow up to 5 cm in length and live up to 7 years. In an ocean with relatively few fish, they occupy the niche that schooling fish fill in other oceans. They feed on phytoplankton that blooms in the nutrient-rich, deep-water upwellings around the Antarctic Convergence in the 24-hour southern summer sunlight. Krill is said to be the largest biomass on the planet, outweighing the human population of the world.
Thanks to one of humanity’s most important agreements, the Antarctic Treaty, the southernmost continent has been reserved for science and research. Military use has been banned and the 1991 Environmental Protocol expressly prohibits the exploitation of mineral resources. The Antarctic Treaty applies to all the land and ice shelves that are found south of the 60S parallel, but unfortunately the Southern Ocean and the wildlife in it are not protected under the Treaty.
Fishing in the Antarctic is regulated by the “Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources” or CCAMLR. The targets for fishing are Antarctic and Patagonian Toothfish, Mackerel Icefish and Antarctic krill. The convention area encompasses all of the Southern Ocean south of the Antarctic Convergence, around 10% of the Earth’s surface, which makes it slightly bigger than the southern ocean whale sanctuary and the 1959 Antarctic Treaty area, that start south of 60 degrees.
CCAMLR is flawed, because it is a consensus-driven regulatory body; one rogue member can block important conservation measures. Stanford researchers concluded in October 2016, that “…efforts to establish a network of effective MPA’s in the Southern Ocean are being hobbled by political infighting and demands that prioritize fishing interests over conservation by members of the international consortium tasked with conserving the region.”
Mission Blue sates that “[d]espite the establishment of CCAMLR and its commitments, krill populations have declined an estimated 80% since its inception and only one marine protected area has been established. Two species of penguins – the Chinstrap and Adélie – have seen massive population declines. And, Antarctica’s whales are at only one percent of their historical pre-whaling levels.”
The Antarctic ecosystem is currently under threat from the effects of humanity’s CO2 emissions and its growing appetite for toothfish and krill.
Krill is caught for fish, pet, livestock and poultry feed and increasingly for human food supplements. A small portion of the caught krill is processed for direct human consumption, mostly in Asia.
Krill is valued by fish-farming companies for its high nutrient values, low concentration of pollutants and pinkish color that lends a desirable hue to farmed seafood.
Ecologists and conservationists (and of course all the wildlife living around Antarctica) value krill as an irreplaceable keystone species.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) described the Antarctic ecosystem as “krill-centric.”
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, krill was considered a largely untapped and richly abundant resource. The fishery for Antarctic krill was initiated in the 1961-62 southern summer when two research vessels from the USSR took 47 tonnes. Commercial harvesting of krill for fish bait and fish food began in the mid to late 1960s and was well underway in the 1970s with the Soviet Union, its Eastern European satellite states and Japan as the most important participants. These countries dominated the fisheries during the 1970s and -80s. The catches dropped significantly in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the iron curtain that separated Eastern from Western Europe. One effect was the redeployment of the former-communist far-seas fisheries fleets. The Antarctic krill catch decreased from a maximum of 500,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes a year, mainly taken by Japan.
In 2004, Japan dropped out for a few years, but Korea, Norway and China stepped in and the catches rose again to 210,000 tonnes during 2009/10 season, 178,000 tonnes were caught in 2010/11 and 157,000 tonnes in 2011/12 (Norway took 101,000 tons of that season’s total, the majority for Aker BioMarine). In 2014, 291,370 tonnes was caught, almost double the catch of two years earlier.
Between 2005 and 2014, 41% of the total krill catch was taken by Norway, 21% by Korea and 11% by Japan. Krill’s value and uses in the marketplace have since skyrocketed. The species is now, disrespectfully, dubbed ‘pink gold’.
CCAMLR was established in 1980 amid concerns that an expanding krill fishery could have a large impact on the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean. To protect krill it would be helpful to know how much there is.
“In the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic krill […] makes up an estimated biomass of around 379.000.000 tonnes”, according to the CCAMLR website, “of this, over half is eaten by whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish each year.”
“The total allowable catch for the southwest Atlantic is currently about 5.6 million tonnes annually. However, CCAMLR has decided that the catch will be regulated within a 620.000 tonnes ‘trigger’ level”, which since 2009 is distributed across four regions in the southwest Atlantic off the Antarctic Peninsula. This results in a catch quota of 155,000 tonnes in Subarea 48.1, 279,000 tonnes in each of Subareas 48.2 and 48.3, and 93,000 tonnes in Subarea 48.4.
This ‘trigger’ level represents approximately 1% of the estimated 60 million tonnes of the unexploited, so-called virgin-size, biomass of the krill population in this region and was selected as it represented the combined maximum historic catches reported from each subarea.
The ‘trigger level’ is not linked to the assessment of krill biomass!
Above this ‘trigger’ level the fishery cannot proceed until there is an agreed mechanism to distribute catches in a manner designed to avoid localized impacts.
Thus the goal of this policy, Conservation Measure 51-07 (CM 51-07), is to avoid over depletion of krill populations from each subarea, particularly in coastal areas where land-based predators such as penguins could suffer disproportionately.”
But where is CCAMLR basing its calculations on? CCAMLR: “The estimate of the standing stock of krill in Area 48 is based on the CCAMLR-2000 Survey (Trathan et al., 2001).”
This means that the data used to determine catch limits is more than one-and-a-half decade old. “In 2010, the Scientific Committee agreed that the best estimate of krill biomass during the CCAMLR-2000 Survey was 60.3 million tonnes. Based on the krill stock assessment model, CCAMLR agreed to the current precautionary catch limit for krill of 5.61 million tonnes per season, running from 1 December to 30 November of the following year, in Subareas 48.1, 48.2, 48.3 and 48.4 combined.”
In 17 years a lot has changed. Since 2000 the water and air temperature around the Antarctic Peninsula, the main krill fishing area, have risen faster than in almost any other place on Earth and the ice coverage there has been shrinking. The life cycle of Antarctic krill is closely tied to factors such as water temperature and the availability of sea ice. The available krill habitat has thus shrunk and optimal reproduction circumstances have degraded.
A new study called “Projected changes of Antarctic krill habitat by the end of the 21st century” describes how the krill lifecycle starts in the southern summer when female krill lay their eggs near the surface. While the eggs develop, they sink to depths up to one thousand meters where the water is two degrees Celsius, about a degree warmer than at the surface, the ideal temperature for krill egg development. After hatching, the krill larvae swim back to the surface to feed. If they don’t find food within ten days, the larvae will starve.
Circumpolar Deep Water is projected to warm one to one-and-a-half degrees Celsius by the end of the century, while some surface waters around Antarctica could warm by as much as two degrees Celsius. Warming of the water means krill eggs will develop faster, not sink as deep below the surface and hatch earlier. The larvae will rise to the surface sooner, but can only withstand temperature changes of up to two degrees Celsius. Above that they won’t develop.
If the larvae do find food within ten days, they will only survive their first winter, if they find ice with crevices for shelter and algae for food.
“This new acquisition demonstrates we are in the Krill fishery for the long term” said Aker BioMarine, established in 2006, when they purchased the krill trawler Antarctic Sea in October 2011. It began ‘harvesting’ in June 2012 and soon after received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification just like sister ship Saga Sea and the company was embraced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Norway.
With all the existing threats to Antarctic krill, the uncertainty about its future in the light of climate change doom and its massive importance for the Antarctic food web, all well documented, you would think that the eco-labels would be hesitant to certify this animal food and health supplement fishery industry, but not so. The providers of eco-labels seem to completely ignore the cumulative effect of the threats krill are facing.
In January 2015, Aker BioMarine’s Antarctic krill fishery was re-certified by the MSC for another 5 years. In August 2015, krill oil supplier Olympic Seafood, the company behind krill oil brand Rimfrost, was awarded MSC certification as well.
In June 2016, Ukrainian company AFC Prydunays’ka Niva announced it had obtained the Friend of the Sea certification for Antarctic krill. The company operates the factory trawler More Sodruzhestva in the Antarctic section of the Atlantic Ocean.
The PEW Environment Group commented in 2010: “How can you certify a single operator or a few ships if you want to guarantee the ‘sustainability’ of an entire fishery? If a few ships are acting responsibly, but the vast majority is not, the target population could still be at risk of being overfished.”
And that is not the only thing wrong about eco-labeling these Antarctic krill fishery ships and companies. According to MSC, its certification is built upon three basic principles: the health of the stock, the environmental impact of the fishery and traceability.
The processed krill is mainly used to feed farmed fish. Fish farming has many well documented problems: pollution of the fish farm locations, spreading of diseases and parasites to wild populations, higher contaminant levels than wild-caught fish, the escape of non-native fish or fish with diluted or genetically altered gene pools, the horrible living circumstances of the fish equaling the worst in factory farming, the wastefulness of catching fish (and krill) to feed farmed fish, to feed people and the culling of fish predators, like seals and sea lions, for being attracted to the fish farms.
So there is a huge, indirect, negative environmental impact of the krill fishery.
Another application for krill is in dog food. Will history repeat itself and a time will come when our pets consume more krill than the world’s whales, in the way factory-farmed animals consume more fish than the world’s sharks?
How can a fishery that is at its core a fishmeal/fishoil fishery, a fishery that is a cattle feed, farmed fish-feed and pet food fishery, deserve an eco label? Even if it would fall technically within the MSC guidelines, isn’t there something morally wrong with this?
The existing data on krill abundance, reproductive strategies, life history and population variables are meager. No management regime or eco certification scheme can capture these uncertainties and indeterminacies adequately in their models so the claim of sustainability and the management tools are built on a shaky foundation. The impact of long-term environmental change is also difficult to incorporate in these models, because we simply don’t know!
There is no need for krill fishing and there is no direct demand, but, as in other consumer product industries, the fisheries are initiated first and then the demand will be created through marketing. Even Aker BioMarine’s own qrill.com website spoke of ‘yet-to-be-developed uses’.
A relatively new way for the poachers of the world to market their products is in the form of ‘health’ supplement capsules. Shark cartilage becomes available because shark-finning – cutting the pectoral, dorsal and caudal fins off a shark and throwing the dying animal overboard – is banned and shark carcasses have to be landed whole. The omega 3 fatty acids from clubbed Canadian harp and hood seals and Namibian fur seals need to keep a despised practice viable. And now krill has to be shoved down human throats. Krill oil tablets are advertised as ‘rich in omega-3 and antioxidant content’ and ‘from pristine and mercury-free, heavy-metal-free, toxin-free Antarctic waters’. These products find their way to the health-obsessed, pill-popping consumer masses that would be better off with healthy, plant-based meals and a bit of exercise.
More applications for krill are invented as the catch is hauled in. Fish feed company BioMar’s test unit in Senja, Norway reported in February 2016 that adding krill to fish feed can reduce dark melanin spots in fish filets by 19%. The melanin discolorations are assumed to be the product of a permanent inflammation process in farmed fish; not surprising as fish farming is the aquatic equivalent of intense factory farming, including its animal welfare issues. The test feed was Qardio containing ‘qrill’ produced by Aker BioMarine.
In May 2016, Aker launched its new Superba 2 oil, which makes use of a technology called Flexitech to create “a next-generation krill oil with improved smell, taste and visual appearance.” Aker claims the new technology will allow it to increase the levels of krill oil components like phospholipids, astaxanthin and omega-3s, while stripping the oil of the salts that give the oil an undesirable ‘fishy’ smell and taste. The extracted oil will be less viscous and have a brighter red color.
Aker BioMarine CEO Matts Johansen said: “This is just the beginning of a new era for omega-3s and krill.” This might be wishful thinking as the market for omega-3 ingredients has been stagnant in recent years after years of growth and is actually contracting, at least in North America. People might be starting to see through the fashion, hype and false claims that have been trying to push omega-3 products down everybody’s throat. Remember that not a single clinical trial has proven any of the health claims made for krill oil.
Like big oil and big pharma there is now big krill: Krill is fished, a market is created and then expanded so more krill can be fished. At the same time these profiteers plant their claws in politics, regulating bodies (CCAMLR), certification organisations (MSC) and even in conservation groups (WWF Norway) to serve as their minions to propagate their policies and goals.
In China, krill is for the young crowd of the middle to upper socio-economic class the magical health booster that rhino horn, fur seal penises, lion bones, pangolins, bear bile and tiger parts are for the older generation, potentially with the same devastating consequences for wildlife.
Several Chinese companies were involved in marketing krill oil in different formats, even before Antarctic krill oil was officially approved for the food industry and food market in December 2013. The next step was to travel to the southern Ocean to harvest the krill themselves.
China’s ‘krill project’ began in October 2010, launched by the Chinese State Ministry of Science. In December of that year 9 universities and research institutions formed Project 863 and formal government approval for the country’s ‘Antarctic Ocean Living Resources Development strategy for the exploitation and utilization of South Antarctic krill’ followed in March 2011.
The project was launched in China’s krill fishing ‘capital’ Dalian in Liaoning Province. The port city of Qingdao in Shandong Province is also heavily investing in the Antarctic krill industry, while Shanghai functions as the export gateway.
“We will increase our investment in the Antarctic area in terms of krill fishing,” said Liu Shenli, owner of China National Fisheries Corp, chairman of the China National Agricultural Development Group and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”
China had begun to fish in the Antarctic in 2009, including an experimental krill fishing expedition by the Shanghai Fishery and Dalian Liaoyu Group. After being implicated in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing of toothfish in 2011, krill fishing has been the only activity conducted by China in the Antarctic. Dalian Fishing Company and Shanghai Fisheries again sent trawlers to the South Atlantic Ocean to fish for krill experimently in 2011. China has gradually been building its presence since. During the 2012-2013 season the vessels produced around 2000 tonnes of krill meat, dried krill meal and human-grade frozen minced krill.
In 2012, China’s Ministry of Agriculture launched a plan entitled, “On promoting the sustainable and healthy development of distant water fishery.” At the start of the 2013 fishery season, China announced that it was shifting from experimental to commercial krill fishing.
In 2014, China’s share still amounted to less than one fifth of the total catch.
China is seeking to increase and improve domestic production to fulfill its national consumer demands and then expand to the export market. It projects to produce at least 3000 tonnes of krill oil for human food supplements and 10,000 tonnes of dried krill meal for use as feed for fish farms and other animals by 2018, but China’s ambitions don’t end there.
Liu Shenli shocked those who were paying attention in April 2015, when, according to the China Daily newspaper, he was reported as saying that China should aim to harvest one to two million tonnes of krill, and claimed the Antarctic could provide one hundred million tonnes of krill annually!
That same month, the privately operated Qingdao Distant Water Fishery Company sent the Mingkai, at 120 meters in length and a gross tonnage of 7765, the largest factory trawler in Asia, to the 48-1 fishery grounds in the Antarctic Ocean, aiming to produce 12,000 tonnes of frozen krill, with an estimated output value of US$11.7 million.
In its new National Security Law issued on July 1st 2015, China declared the country’s intent to “adhere to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, the international seabed and polar regions.” The Antarctic Krill Major Platform was launched on July 25th 2015.
Chinese krill fishing methods to date still lack the technology to recreate the efficiency and quality that, for instance, Norway’s Aker BioMarine has mastered, China harvested only 54,187 tonnes of krill from 2010 to 2013, but they seem determined to catch up. The Chilean-based krill consultancy Tharos is selling its internationally patented process for the at-sea extraction of phospholipids-rich krill oil to the government-supported Chinese trawler companies and designed a business model and processing concept for them.
In January 2016, Wärtsilä announced it was selected to design the world’s biggest and modern krill fishing factory vessel for China-based Jiangsu Sunline Deep Sea Fisheries Co. Ltd. The 115-meter long ship will have onboard processing factories for the production of frozen krill, krill meat and Omega-3 fish oil. It can catch krill through conventional net trawling, but also using the continuous pumping technology that vacuums the krill out of the net without lifting it on deck as the Aker ships do.
Wang Zhi, owner of Jiangsu Sunline Deep Sea Fisheries Co. Ltd., was already talking about a “new series of vessels”.
In April 2016, Norway’s NSK Ship Design announced it has signed a contract with China National Fisheries Corporation (CNFC), the owner of one of the world’s largest fishing fleets – over 220 fishing vessels – to convert a conventional ‘Moonzund’ class trawler into a krill trawler and krill meal production vessel.
Shandong Keruier Biological Products Co., Ltd. announced plans to build “the largest comprehensive industry park on Antarctic Krill in the world,” according to China Economics Online. With an investment of over US$60 million, it aims to build up a production capacity of 100 tonnes of krill oil, high-protein peptide, high-end cosmetics and daily food products.
It is only a matter of time before China becomes the largest player in the Southern Ocean krill fishery.
From 2012 to 2014, the number of Chinese vessels involved in ‘distant water fishing’ (high seas or foreign waters) grew from 1830 to 2460. The Chinese government is directly driving this growth by subsidizing fuel costs and other expenses.
In 2013 the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated China’s landings from distant waters at 4.6 million tonnes, far more than China reported to the United Nations (UN).
Despite all the talk and announcements, no official targets or development plans for krill fishing have been set by China.
For the 2016 krill fishing season (1 December 2015 to 30 November 2016) China announced 4 partaking ships: the Long Teng, Long Da, Fu Rong Hai and Ming Kai. Chile planned one ship (Betanzos), the Republic of Korea three (Sejong, Kwang Ja Ho & Insung Ho), Norway three (Saga Sea, Antarctic Sea & Juvel) and the Ukraine one (More Sodruzhestva).
For the 21017 krill fishing season (1 December 2016 to 30 November 2017) China, South Korea, Ukraine and Norway are using the same ships, while Chile authorised the Antarctic Endeavour.
The Chinese are not the only ones expanding their krill fishing capacity. April 2017, Aker BioMarine CEO Matts Johansen said: “If you want to play in the krill game you have to go big.” In February 2017, Aker BioMarine announced plans to build a new, “state-of-the-art” Antarctic krill fishing vessel. The new vessel will be 130 meters long, 23 meter wide and it will be constructed by Norwegian shipbuilding firm VARD on its Tulcea, Romania, shipyard. The total value of the contract, including buyer’s supplies, is 1 billion NOK (approximately US$120 million), evidence to how much money there is to be made in reaping Antarctica’s krill. Construction is scheduled to begin in May of 2017 and conclude by the end of 2018. Aker plans to put the new vessel into operation in the Antarctic in the beginning of the 2019 season.
Aker BioMarine has also invested in a new processing facility in Houston, Texas. According to Johansen, Aker has spent an estimated $400 to $500 million in building out the krill business.
Becoming a giant and a bully in the krill business seems to be the only way to survive in it. Throughout 2016, Aker and Rimfrost from Norway, Neptune from the USA and Enzymotec from Israël fought their ‘krill wars’ in US courts over alleged patent infringements.
At the same time more krill in the market reduces already low prices, while fishfarmers are looking at GMO soy and poultry byproducts such as chicken feathers as cheaper fish feed alternatives to krill.
Olympic Seafood AS that operates the krill fishing vessel Juvel through Emerald Fisheries AS and markets the krill under the Rimfrost brand, seems to have drawn the short straw and is in financial trouble.
In the past decade annual catches have averaged 170,000 tonnes and that seems a long way away from reaching the ‘trigger’ limit, but the numbers are rising. During 2014, five countries caught 291,370 tonnes of krill, the highest amount since the last Soviet era catch of 1991 (331,318 tonnes), of which the Norwegians caught 165,899 tonnes, Korean vessels took 55,414 tonnes and the Chinese 54,303 tonnes.
In 2015, 12 vessels fished in Subareas 48.1, 48.2 and 48.3 and the total catch of krill reported in catch and effort reports was 225,466 tonnes, during this millennium only surpassed by the catch of the year before.
These numbers are estimates as there is no agreement on how much krill is exactly caught; CCAMLR: “At its meeting in 2008, the Working Group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management (WG-EMM) considered how the actual catches of krill are reported as the mass of product multiplied by a conversion factor to estimate the ‘green weight’ and expressed its concern over the inconsistency in the way the amount of krill removed from the ecosystem may be recorded.”
The numbers also don’t include ‘unaccounted mortality’, the krill deaths that occur after escaping the fishing gear, due to physiological damage and stress or trauma–factors, which may also increase vulnerability to predators. In a study for CCAMLR, Size V. Siegel estimated the escape mortality rate of krill at 5–25%. A study by scientists employed by Norwegian krill fishers Rimfrost AS and Aker BioMarine AS, came to the much lower number of 4.4 ± 4.4%, suggesting that krill are fairly tolerant of the capture-and-escape process in trawls. How convenient things look when the fox is guarding the henhouse.
As mentioned above, the fisheries are not the only threat to krill survival and the cumulative effect of all burdens should be taken into account.
The fishing effort has increased over the last few years, while the fishery has become increasingly concentrated around the Antarctic Peninsula and thus the competition between the fishing vessels and Antarctic wildlife has increased as well. Meanwhile our knowledge on the effects that our fossil-fuel and animal-derived-food addiction will have on the Antarctic ecosystem is growing day by day. The future is looking bleak.
Fishing and climate change may be working in tandem to cause a decline in populations of krill.
Dr. Kawaguchi works for the Australian Antarctic Division and has been studying krill for 25 years. His research led to gloomy predictions on how our CO2 footprint will reduce the hatch rates of Antarctic krill over the next 100 years. In an October 2015 interview in the New York Times he said:
“Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the water mean greater levels of ocean acidification. This interrupts the physiology of krill. It stops the eggs hatching, or the larvae developing.
If we continue with business as usual, and we don’t act on reducing carbon emissions, in that case, there could be a 20 to 70 percent reduction in Antarctic krill by 2100.
By 2300, the Southern Ocean might not be suitable for krill reproduction.”
Besides more acidic, the ocean surrounding Antarctica has become substantially less salty over the past couple of decades. An August 2016 paper in Nature suggests that the melting of sea ice could be responsible. Using satellite data and models, the authors showed that adrift Antarctic sea ice in recent years has been moving ever farther away from the continent under the influence of stronger winds, pouring fresh water farther out into the ocean as it melts. The area where that melting is happening, is where deep water wells up from the bottom of the sea, carrying both carbon dioxide and a variety of nutrients with it.
When fresh water is added there, this suppresses the upwelling of the deeper waters into the surface layer preventing nutrients from being carried to the surface. This could influence the entire food web including the krill near its base.
Abundant and thick sea ice during the southern winter long served as an indicator that krill would be plentiful the following summer. Krill are sheltered from winter storms and temperature extremes under the ice. Krill larvae feed on micro-algae living on the bottom of sea ice where a small layer of melt water forms a nursery. Adult Krill will overwinter there as well. The winter sea ice cover is rapidly dwindling around the Antarctic Peninsula, which has the fastest rising temperatures of the planet, two-and-a-half degrees Celsius in the last fifty years. Rising temperatures reduce the growth and abundance of the plankton on which krill feed, while loss of sea ice removes habitat that shelters both krill and the organisms they eat. Without ice there’s little protection from predators because the krill can’t hide in sea ice niches, and there’s no physical habitat to keep them anchored and stop strong currents from sweeping them away. This means fewer krill will survive to spawn the next summer.
Reproductive failure in Krill as a result of dwindling sea ice is a real risk and will cascade on into breeding failure in birds and seals. Some of these effects are already visible.
According to one 2004 estimate by United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), based on data covering 40 Antarctic summers, Antarctic krill populations have dropped by an estimated 80 to 90% since the 1970s. Exactly why, scientists don’t know, but the loss of sea ice is thought to be a major factor. This makes the MSC health of stock assessment questionable to say the least.
One recent study suggests that if current CO2 trends/warming continue, krill could lose between 20 and 55% (depending on the vulnerability of the location) of their remaining habitat by the end of the century. Another study performed at Yale University by Andrea Piñones, a researcher at the Research Centre for High Latitude Marine Ecosystem Dynamics (IDEAL) and the Advanced Study Centre in Arid Zones (CEAZA), along with Alexey Fedorov, a researcher at Yale University, called “Projected changes of Antarctic krill habitat by the end of the 21st century”, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, says that the warmer waters and lack of sea ice could lead krill habitat to shrink by as much as 80% by 2100.
There is not only less ice, sea ice has also been advancing later and retreating earlier. Climate models predict a 90-day delay in the formation of winter sea ice by the end of the century.
On March 17, 2013, I saw the Krill fishing vessel Antarctic Sea, as seen in the accompanying photos, fishing and processing, bellowing huge white plumes into the pure Antarctic air, in position 63-44.7S 060-18.6W, where the Gilbert and Orleans Straits meet east of Trinity Island. The 134-meter, 9432 gross tonnage ship, formerly named Thorshovdi, is owned by the Norwegian company Aker BioMarine.
The only other times I saw a factory ship of this size in Antarctic waters was on board the Sea Shepherd ships chasing the Japanese whale poaching mother ship Nisshin Maru out of the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.
Nearby, in position 63-43.2S 061-15.6W, the Kai Xin was fishing. This 104-meter, 4407t pelagic trawler owned by Shanghai Kaichuang Deep Sea Fisheries Co. Ltd. was fishing for the same ‘pink gold’.
A little bit further, the Republic of Korea vessel ‘Adventure’ was after the same thing and they were not alone. That year there were two Polish vessels, the Alina and Sirius, two other Norwegians, the Juvel and the Saga Sea, two other Koreans, the Kwang Ja Ho and the Insung Ho, two more Chinese, the Fu Rong Hai and the Lian Xing Hai, and the Chilenean vessel Betanzos, all after Euphausia superba. They are all licensed from December 1 to November 30 of the following year and then have to apply again, for part or all of the regions 48.1-48.4, basically the entire South Atlantic Ocean South of 50 degrees, excluding the ice-clogged Weddell Sea.
The area where I found the krill fishing vessels was incredibly close to the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands that are dotted with penguin rookeries and fur seal haul-outs. This gives a full overlap between the fishery and the foraging ranges of land-based predators like the Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adélie and Macaroni penguins which cannot move to other locations.
The longest and most comprehensive study to date of what penguins eat was published in February 2017 in the journal Marine Biology. It examines the diets of gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) at Bird Island, South Georgia over a 22 year period. Between 1989 and 2010 gentoo penguins ate approximately equal amounts of crustaceans, mainly Antarctic krill, and fish. However, successful breeding – the number of chicks fledged per nest per year – was strongly related to the amount of krill in the diet, with few chicks fledging in years where krill was particularly scarce. The team compared the diets of gentoo penguins with those of macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolphus) also resident at Bird Island. Both species are able to switch to other prey when krill availability is low, but, where gentoo penguins have a broad and variable diet, macaroni penguins are specialist predators on krill, allowing the two penguin species to successfully coexist at Bird Island, South Georgia.
Even if there is still plenty of krill around, both predators and fishing vessels will concentrate on the highest densities and therefore directly compete. The surrounding waters are cruised by seven species of baleen whales. The ice floes in these waters function as resting places for crabeater and leopard seals. All these animals depend directly or indirectly on krill as their food source. The true seals have flourished and the fur seals were able to bounce back from near-extinction when the Antarctic waters were emptied of the krill-gorging baleen whales during the whaling era (early 1900s until the 1980s). The competition eliminated, more food became available for them. This mechanism has a reverse as well; a decline in krill will eventually hit all animals in the Antarctic, even flying birds and fish, and will prevent the great whales from returning to pre-exploitation numbers.
Marine biologist Rodolfo Werner said in a July 2015 piece in Ensia that “at the end of the day, it is not only how much you fish but where. If krill is fished in a concentrated way, that could lead to so-called ‘local depletion’ and that can have serious implications for land-based predators, such as penguins.”
Christian Reiss, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in the New York Times in October 2016: “Fisheries want to take all their catch from areas where they already fish. They don’t want to take it from areas where they don’t fish. That’s the opposite of being precautionary.”
Fishing around the Antarctic Peninsula is convenient; it is just a few days sailing to and from the ships’ homeports in southern Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
Since the fishery developed in the last three decades of the twentieth century, the location of fishing has moved from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean sector and has since the early 1990s focused almost entirely on the Bransfield Strait off the Antarctic Peninsula (Subarea 48.1), on the area northwest of Coronation Island (Subarea 48.2) and on the area north of South Georgia (Subarea 48.3). Krill fishing is thus highly concentrated in one specific region at the northwestern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Annual catches in CCAMLR area 48.1 in the 1980s were around 55.000 tonnes; during the period 2010-2015 the same area experienced an average catch of 115.000 tonnes per year. Of the 293,815 tonnes catch of 2014, fished by 12 vessels, approximately 50% was taken from Subarea 48.1. Closure of Subarea 48.1 because the ‘trigger’ limit was reached occurred on 17 May 2014 and 28 May 2015.
In the Southern Ocean food web, most marine life is a direct predator of krill or just one step removed from it. Diminishing krill stocks can mean less food for squid, whales, seals, sea lions, fish, penguins and flying birds.
Commercial krill fishing largely takes place during the spring and summer ice-free, long-daylight and less-stormy season, which is when penguins and fur seals need to feed their young with food not too far from the land area where they are nesting and breeding. Breeding colonies of Adélie and chinstrap penguins, whose diets rely on up to 98% krill, have declined by half since the mid-1970s.
In 2003, CCAMLR agreed to the definition of a suite of small-scale management units (SSMUs) in Area 48 that are based on the distribution of krill, krill-predators and the fishery, however, there has been no agreement on the allocation of catches at this scale. There is now even a movement that wants to dispose of the separate quotas for the South Atlantic areas.
The Scheme of International Scientific Observation (SISO) was first implemented in 2010 in the krill fishery. The immediate result was a huge discrepancy between fish by-catch reported by the fishing companies themselves and the independent observers. CCAMLR’s Krill Fishery Report 2015: “That report [WG-EMM-14/31 Rev. 1] highlighted the difference in the frequency of occurrence of by-catch as reported in the commercial (C1) data and the observer data for the same vessel. The reported frequency of occurrence of by-catch in the C1 data has increased over the past three seasons from 1.34% of hauls in 2013, to 3.76% in 2014 and 12.88% in 2015 (noting that the data for the 2015 season is incomplete). These frequencies of occurrence are much smaller than those reported in the SISO data for the same period (39.14%, 48.48% and 56.46% for 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively)”. Another indication that the industry cannot be trusted.
In both the C1 data and the SISO data the two most frequently occurring fish species as bycatch were the painted notie and spiny icefish.
During 2014, one Cape petrel was killed during net shooting operations and one gentoo penguin was hauled on board but released alive. In 2015 there were no reports of bird mortalities as a result of interaction with fishing gear.
There were no seal mortalities reported between 2008 and 2014, but two Antarctic fur seals died in krill trawling nets in 2015.
Aker BioMarine boasts of a no-by-catch policy, but their definition of by-catch might only consider birds and mammals and larger fish. Some scientists are deeply worried about the by-catch of larval fish. The issue is that fingerling and larval fishes often wind up as accidental by-catch, impacting the food chain for marine life.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature says the threat of declining krill populations is significant.
CCAMLR has acknowledged that for stocks such as krill that experience high inter-annual variability in abundance, the probability with which the biomass may fall below 20% of the initial biomass (remember that krill is considered not so much a living being, but mainly a harvestable resource) may be greater than 0.1 even in the absence of fishing. In the CCAMLR calculation scheme this would result in sustainable yield being equal to 0.
Aker BioMarine of course claims that the amount of krill caught by humans is comparatively small, with just 0.5% of the millions of tonnes consumed each year by other animals. “There is no research as of today that shows krill fishing has any impact on whales, penguins or seals,” Cilia Indahl, sustainability director at Aker BioMarine has said.
“Actually, the impact of climate change is much more important to address,” she added. This is exactly the type of reasoning used in the Arctic to keep shooting polar bears and narwhals. Because climate change is such an enormous threat, direct human killing is considered insignificant.
What the krill companies don’t like to hear is that the fishing effort is a thing we can easily and quickly eliminate while we try to figure out the climate change/ocean acidification issue.
We should all think about what we choose to eat in this overpopulated, polluted, CO2-saturated world.
No human culture ever depended on krill as food and krill is not fished to feed the starving masses. Krill feeds our pets and farmed animals and is used as a fashionable health supplement for humans. We don’t need krill in our food, directly or indirectly, but almost all life in the Southern Ocean does.
NOAA put it this way: “… because it is barely fished, it supports one of the last great wild ecosystems on earth. When it comes to entering such places, we humans don’t have a very good track record of keeping them intact.”
Because of krill’s critical position in the ecosystem, the United States prohibits its harvest off the Pacific coast, the feeding ground for blue whales.
Krill is called the single largest under-utilized commercial marine resource remaining, because the global quota set is not yet reached, but expansion of the fishery seems inevitable.
The fishery was kept in check by the distance and inhospitality of Antarctica’s waters, the fact that Krill are highly perishable once killed and that consumer interest was limited. Aquaculture feed and the market for health supplements created a demand, rapid on-board processing techniques have dealt with the quick spoiling and new krill products are being developed.
The Krill fishery is the continuation of a trend in the history of fishing. We fish further and further away from home and we fish further and further down the food web. And how far did we come! You can’t get much further away from ‘home’ as Antarctica and you can’t get much further down the food web than krill. We are reaching the end.
Throughout its history the fisheries have proven that what can be fished will be fished until collapse. They have shown to be incapable of self-regulation, constraint, common sense and decency. They and their political backers have always shunned warnings, ignored or watered-down scientific recommendations and dismissed evidence of their destructive practices. They have always been driven by only one impulse: insatiable greed.
There is no reason to expect that the fate of krill will be different. As other fisheries worldwide are over-exploited and profits dwindle, more companies and nations will look for new ‘virgin’ stocks to reap and one day also the set quota for Krill will be reached. With more investments, there will be higher stakes and political pressure will build to increase catch quota and to open up new areas. Industry, eco-certification societies and politicians, with the large, middle-of-the-road, ‘conservation’ organizations at their side will speed with eyes wide shut towards another disaster as they always have and will attempt to mitigate the consequences afterwards.
There is still time to prevent this, to right the missed chance in the Antarctic Treaty. Where the continent is for now safe from the exploration for minerals or military use, the seas surrounding it should also be protected from all exploitation. The entire CCAMLR region should be turned into a zero-catch marine reserve.
Aker says MSC recertification eliminates any lingering doubts on sustainability of krill By Hank Schultz, 19-Jan-2015
Atkinson, V. Siegel, E.A. Pakhomov, M.J. Jessopp & V. Loeb (2009). “A re-appraisal of the total biomass and annual production of Antarctic krill”. Deep-Sea Research I 56: 727–740.
“Projected changes of Antarctic krill habitat by the end of the 21st century” by Andrea Piñones: Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA; Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Áridas (CEAZA), Coquimbo, Chile; and Centro de Investigación Dinámica de Ecosistemas Marinos de Altas Latitudes (IDEAL) and Alexey V. Fedorov: Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, P.O. Box 208109, New Haven, CT, USA.
Siegel V. Size selectivity of the RMT8 plankton net and a commercial trawl for Antarctic krill. CCAMLR WG-EMM-07/28. 2007; 9 pp.
Krafft BA, Krag LA, Engås A, Nordrum S, Bruheim I, Herrmann B (2016) Quantifying the Escape Mortality of Trawl Caught Antarctic Krill (Euphausia superba). PLoS ONE 11(9): e0162311. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0162311
Long-term variability in the diet and reproductive performance of penguins at Bird Island, South Georgia by Claire M. Waluda, Simeon L. Hill, Helen J. Peat and Philip N. Trathan, Marine Biology, Feb 2017.