IIt’s a costly expedition through some of the roughest seas in the world to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. A journey through the Drake Passage to sub-area 48.1 faces treacherous weather where the waves can reach 12 meters (40 feet) high.
Yet it’s a risk that 14 ships found worthwhile in the last year alone, as countries increasingly venture into Antarctica to catch a species of great value to the multi-billion dollar supplement industry: krill.
About the size of a paper clip, Antarctic krill is the most abundant species on Earth. There are an estimated 400 million tons of krill in Antarctica alone. It’s an important link in the food chain: krill provides iron and other nutrients that fertilize the ocean, and is a vital source of food for wildlife such as whales, penguins and seals.
It also plays an important role in the carbon cycle. The Southern Ocean is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, and krill are so numerous that they can affect atmospheric carbon levels. One study found that krill can remove up to 12 billion tons of carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere.
Antarctic krill is a highly valued raw material in the dietary supplement industry. Photo: Justin Hofman / Alamy
While krill has long been used in aquaculture to fatten farmed fish, krill oil has become a gold rush for the dietary supplement industry over the past decade. Antarctic krill products are marketed as a superior and sustainable alternative to fish oil pills and are touted as being more effective at delivering omega-3s into the bloodstream than fish oil, which has been linked to improved heart and brain health, among many other benefits. And there is no fishy aftertaste.
Can the fishery be managed effectively before it expands? Nicole Bransome, Marine Ecologist
With growing concerns about overfishing and the quality of fish oil, manufacturers are also promoting krill products as a high quality, more environmentally friendly substitute. A bottle sold on Amazon promises krill “sustainably harvested from pure water … to ensure maximum nutrient quality”.
But with all sustainability claims, quotas were reached shockingly quickly with the increasing demand. A recent cross-border survey of the global fishing industry by the Environmental Reporting Collective found that Antarctic krill catch limits in sub-area 48.1 were reached in 69 days last year, up from an average of 130 days over the past five years.
“It’s pretty worrying when fisheries explore these ‘undeveloped’ areas or discover large fish stocks,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia. “That should really raise your eyebrows, because what is really driving this expansion? Krill oil is obviously a factor. “
The international organization that manages the Antarctic krill fishery, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), insists that its practices do not disrupt the marine ecosystem.
Krill ships monitor their own locations and conscientiously report their catches to the CCAMLR, which sets strict catch restrictions in the Antarctic.
A krill trawler under construction for Aker BioMarine at a shipyard in China in 2020. Aker accounted for more than half of the krill fished last year. Photo: VCG / Getty
But it is clear that in some areas – the most vulnerable, according to conservationists like Bondaroff – those limits are being exceeded disturbed as countries rush to join the race.
China is building the world’s largest Antarctic krill trawler, due for completion in 2023, and the country has more than doubled its Antarctic krill catch from 50,423 tons in 2019 to 118,353 tons in 2020) in krill fishing, and South Korea is also reporting more ships at.
Krill oil retail is expected to grow by more than 13% by 2023, although most of the krill catch is still used for feeding fish, pets, and livestock. Aquaculture is the fastest growing animal feed industry, and Antarctic krill provides more nutrients and fewer pollutants, making it particularly attractive to farmed salmon.
“It is growing, and I think the question arises, ‘Can the fishery be managed effectively before it expands?'” Says Nicole Bransome of Pews Protecting Antarctica’s Southern Ocean project.
Last year, more than half of the krill was caught by one company: Aker BioMarine. As the largest player in the industry since the 1990s, it is part of the Aker empire controlled by Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke. The oil and gas, construction, marine biotechnology and energy company admits that catches have increased in recent years but insists, “We want to harvest, of course, but we want our harvest potential for 10. secure or a hundred years … we have to be in a place where our work is accepted by a variety of stakeholders. “
Although there are only a dozen or so krill fishing vessels in Antarctica, their number belies their effectiveness. The ships are floating factories the size of a soccer field that can suck up more than 1,000 tons of krill every day.
“It’s not like you can just take a small boat and start harvesting krill,” says Ekaterina Uryupova, Visiting Fellow at the Arctic Institute in Washington.
“You have to prepare and be prepared for all kinds of weather and all kinds of situations. Then you have to find the best place to catch krill and when the fridges are full you have to walk the same distance. “
Krill oil supplements are marketed as a sustainable alternative to fish oil pills. Photo: pinkomelet / Getty / iStockphoto
Conservationists fear that fisheries are focusing on areas that are critical to species that rely on krill as a source of food.
Rodolfo Werner from the Antarctic and South Polar Coalition, Says: “The fishery kept fishing in certain areas near the coast, where on the one hand penguin colonies and on the other hand popular areas for foraging for whales.”
Most of the ships operate in Area 48, a region of enormous biodiversity that is home to more than 62 million tons of krill.
In 2010, the CCAMLR set a catch limit of 620,000 tonnes in four areas to prevent concentrated fisheries. In theory, fishing for krill must be stopped by next year once the limit is reached.
The krill fishery is in line, but last year’s catches in Area 48 were nearly 450,000 tonnes, an increase of 15% over the previous year.
Due to its considerable ecological importance, sub-area 48.1 has the smallest limit at 155,000 tons. Colonies of penguins and seals live near the shore, and whales feed on krill in the summer. Conservationists fear that the catch limit has been reached eight times in the last ten years.
“If you really go to the last amount of krill that you can pull out of the water, it doesn’t provide a buffer for challenges like climate change,” says Bondaroff.
Even in sub-area 48.1, fishing is concentrated in a tiny pocket. Between 2010 and 2018, 74% of the total catch was made in Bransfield Strait, which is only 8% of the area. In another region, subdivision 48.3, it was even more concentrated: 95% of the catches came from just 5.6% of the area.
“So they’re not overfishing all of Antarctica, but if you look at these very small areas, they are. And that’s really important to the wildlife there, ”says Bransome, who fears that quotas are so low and cover so large an area that they cannot prevent such concentrated fisheries.
In October, a crucial moment for krill, the 26 members of the CCAMLR, 25 countries and the EU, will decide at their annual meeting whether to revise or lift the catch limits for Area 48 – which would happen if no agreement is reached.
Gentoo penguin feeds its chick on the western Antarctic Peninsula. Experts say krill is becoming scarcer on the peninsula, threatened by the climate crisis and fishing. Photo: Eitan Abramovich / AFP / Getty Images
“And that would allow the fishery to really concentrate their catch. If that happens, it could be pretty destructive to the ecosystem, ”says Phil Trathan, conservation biologist with the British Antarctic Survey.
CCAMLR argues that krill catches in the Southern Ocean are on precautionary grounds. It notes that less than 1% of the krill in Antarctica is fished annually.
“This is one of the few resources that is still very underutilized in the world’s oceans,” says David Agnew, the CCAMLR.
But with a higher interest in krill, scientists are concerned about the effects on the food chain.
“There cannot be an infinite contraction and concentration of fisheries with an increasing number of actors involved and no change in this structure. Something has to change, “says Andy Lowther, a quantitative ecologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute. “Either the quota needs to be increased or the area expanded, or fewer actors need to be involved in the fishery.”
Research from last year suggests that the concentrated krill fishery is reducing the locally available amounts of krill, which has severely affected penguins, including population declines in certain species.
“When you fish krill, what you do affects the entire ecosystem because every species in Antarctica feeds on krill or some other species that feed on krill,” says Werner.
Changes in krill populations are also proving critical. A study published in June said krill populations will decline by 30% by 2100 due to the climate crisis. The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest changing regions and has warmed by almost 3 ° C in the past 50 years.
Krill, in particular, is shifting south to the pole as the ocean warms. If krill moved further south, predators on sub-Antarctic islands like seals and penguins would have less food available.
“We are not dealing with a static system. It changes due to the warming of the planet, ”says Trathan. “I would say we are heading for one of the most difficult years.”
A 2019 study found that krill are already facing increasing difficulties in replenishing their population on the northern edge of the Southern Ocean near Area 48.
Says Bransome, “It really speaks for what we’re doing with our oceans in general: that we’ve fished so much that we now have to go to this place on the bottom of the world.”
Read the full report from the Environmental Reporting Collective on Fisheries in Antarctica, part of its Oceans Inc. collaborative research series on IUU fishing