Krill Fisheries, the Next Collapse?

Sea-ShepherdThe industrial smoke stacks have arrived to 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.

Fishing in the Antarctic is regulated by the “Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources” or CCAMLR. The targets for fishing are the 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 whale sanctuary and 1959 Antarctic Treaty area, south of 60 degrees.

Many people think of Krill as microscopic creatures, but in fact, each individual can grow to 5 cm in length and live up to 7 years. They form the zooplankton. In an ocean with relatively few fish, they occupy the niche that schooling fish fill in other oceans as a keystone species. They feed on phytoplankton that blooms in the nutrient-rich, deep-water upwellings at the Antarctic Convergence during the 24-hour southern summer sunlight. Krill is said to be the largest biomass on the planet, outweighing the human population of the world.

On March 17, 2013 we found 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 and still licensed under that name, is owned by the Norwegian company Aker BioMarine. The last time I saw a factory ship of this size in Antarctic waters was on board the SSS Steve Irwin chasing the Japanese whale poacher’s 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. The 104-meter, 4407t pelagic trawler owned by Shanghai Kaichuang Deep Sea Fisheries Co. Ltd. was fishing for the same pink gold: Krill.

BioMarine's Krill Fishing and Processing Factory Ship

BioMarine’s Krill Fishing and Processing Factory Ship
Photo: Erwin Vermeulen / Sea Shepherd


A little bit further, the Republic of Korea vessel ‘Adventure’ was after the same thing. And they are not alone. There are 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 of 2012 to November 30 of 2013, 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.

During the 1970s and early 80s, the first Krill fisheries were dominated by the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Japan. With the fall of communism, the catches declined from a maximum of 500,000 tons to 100,000 tons a year, mainly taken by Japan. In 2004, Japan dropped out, but Korea, Norway and China stepped in and the catches rose again to 210,000 tons in 2009/10, 178.000 tons were caught in 2010/11 and 157.000 tons in 2011/12. Norway took 101,000 tons of that last season’s total, the majority for Aker BioMarine.

“This new acquisition demonstrates we are in the Krill fishery for the long term” said Aker BioMarine when they purchased the Antarctic Sea in October 2011. It began ‘harvesting’ in June 2012. Soon after, it received Marine Stewardship Council certification just as sister ship Saga Sea and the company was embraced by WWF Norway. According to MSC, its eco-label 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, escaping non-native fish, the horrible living circumstances of the fish equaling the worst in factory farming, fish predators, like seals and sea lions, killed for being attracted to the fish farms and especially the wastefulness of catching fish (and in this case Krill), to feed other fish, to feed people. So there is a huge, indirect, negative environmental impact of the Krill fishery. Another application for Krill is in dog food. Will there come a time when our pets consume more Krill than the world’s whales, like our factory farmed animals consume more fish than the world’s sharks?

So how can a fishery that is at its core a fishmeal/fish oil like 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? 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. Even Aker BioMarine’s own website speaks 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 capsules: shark cartilage becomes available because shark-finning gets banned and carcasses have to be landed whole, the omega 3 fatty acids from clubbed Canadian Harp 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.

BioMarine's Krill Fishing and Processing Factory Ship

BioMarine’s Krill Fishing and Processing Factory Ship
Photo: Erwin Vermeulen / Sea Shepherd 

As 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 are not, the target population could still be at risk of being overfished.” Aker BioMarine boasts of a no-by-catch policy, but some scientists are deeply worried about the by-catch of larval fish. 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. The growing Krill fishing industry is adding to the pressure of environmental changes that are already threatening Krill. Human-forced climate change being the most prominent. 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, 2.5 degrees C in the last 50 years.

Reproductive failure in Krill as a result of dwindling sea ice is a real risk and will result in breeding failure in birds and seals. Some of these effects are already visible. According to one 2004 estimate, based on data covering 40 Antarctic summers, the amount of Krill in the Southern Ocean may have dropped by 80% since the 1970s. This makes the MSC health of stock assessment questionable to say the least.

The area where we 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 penguins (Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie and Macaroni), which cannot move to other locations. 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, but 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.

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 demand is on the rise however, rapid on-board processing techniques have dealt with the quick spoiling and new 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 chain. You can’t get much further away 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. The so-called conservation organizations will become industry, politicians controlled and the fisheries will speed with eyes wide shut towards disaster as they always have.

There is still time to right the missed chance in the Antarctic Treaty. Where the continent is for now safe from exploitation for minerals or military use, the seas surrounding it should also be protected from all exploitation. The CCAMLR region should be turned into a zero-catch marine reserve.

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Dimitri Sclabos

Founder and Co-owner