The Mighty Antarctic Krill and the Global Movement to Save Them
October 26, 2016
Mission Blue is proud to partner with Lifeline Antarctica! One of the most important Hope Spots is the Ross Sea in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. Currently, CCAMLR delegates have the unique opportunity to ensure this last great wilderness is protected.
By: Kristin Urquiza, Lifeline Antarctica
Krill may be small but this shrimp-like crustacean plays a mighty role as the foundation of the Antarctica ecosystem. Penguins survive almost exclusively on krill and blue whales need four tons per day to survive.
Because of krill’s critical position in the ecosystem, the United States prohibits its harvest off the Pacific coast. Partly as a result, the region’s blue whales have recovered to 97 percent of their pre-whaling population, the only fully recovered blue whale population in the world.
Antarctica’s marine resources are managed through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), established in 1982. CCAMLR is a consensus-driven regulatory body of 25 member states with a mandate to apply an ecological approach to any commercial activity and to establish permanent protections for the Southern Ocean. In 2002, CCAMLR committed to establishing a “robust” system of marine protected areas (MPA’s) throughout the ocean by 2012.
Despite the establishment of CCAMLR and its commitments, krill populations have declined an estimated 80% since its inception and only one marine protected areas 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.
So what’s happening?
Earlier this month, Stanford researchers released findings that confirmed what a growing network of campaigners has long suspected: commercial interest is eroding the political will for protection of the Antarctic ecosystem.
They said, “…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.”
And on the frontline of this frontier? Krill.
Currently, all krill fishing happens off the Antarctic Peninsula – ground zero for penguin colonies’ foraging and breeding grounds. New technologies in the krill fishing industry are racing to the market. State-of-the-art krill fishing boats boast the ability to “vacuum” up every krill they encounter. This technology is indiscriminate: both larvae and adults are harvested, making it harder for populations to recover on their own.
This jump in krill fishing is occurring just as krill is already experiencing extreme pressure from climate change. Climate change is rapidly affecting the ability of sea ice to form around the continent. Diminishing sea ice affects the ability for algae, which grows under the ice, to form. Krill feeds on algae which, in turn, feeds nearly everything else. As algae suffers from climate change, so do krill. A study released in August 2016 found an alarming krill drop off by the end of this century due to climate change. This one-two punch to krill could be the perfect confluence of events to permanently change the fragile balance that exists in this unique ecosystem.
Krill ends up in a neighborhood near you
Krill is crushed up and turned into pet food, aquaculture, and Omega-3 supplements of dubious value. Not a single clinical trial has proven any of the health claims made for krill oil. While the Omega-3 sector isn’t the largest (yet) it poses a serious threat: its profit margins are by far the greatest and where commercial interests have pivoted and continue to grow. For example, China – a member of CCAMLR that has previously voted against MPAs in the region – is proposing to increase the Antarctic krill harvest seven-fold.
Establishment of MPAs in the Southern Ocean is a win for the continent, its species, and the health of our oceans. To date, lack of action to commitments has left these waters vulnerable to commercial exploitation. That is where the campaigning organization Mighty comes in. We have launched a robust initiative, Lifeline Antarctica, to build public support for Antarctic MPA’s, to challenge corporate and commercial interests in the area, and engage government officials to advance protections and business leaders to drop products sourced from Antarctica waters and stand in solidarity with the NGO community against exploitation of this last pristine frontier.
What you can do – join our penguin colony of collective action
Antarctica – and CCAMLR – may be inaccessible to most of us at the surface, but there is a powerful way you can make a difference. Krill is ending up on a store shelf near you. Retailers like Walgreens, Target, Costco, Safeway and others sell krill oil supplements. With no science backing up the health claims, it’s time to make the switch to an alternative source of Omega-3’s. Numerous vegetarian and vegan options (and easier on the wallet!) are readily available made from seaweed, algae, chia, hemp, or cabbage.
Once you’ve made the switch, let your favorite retailer know. Comment cards, letters to local managers, or a face-to-face conversation are all avenues you can take to help educate local stores on the environmental risks connected to selling krill oil. Believe us, the magnitude of this drumbeat inevitably climbs the corporate latter to executives and decision makers. To date, 2 retailers – CVS and Walgreens – have started to evolve their purchasing practices on krill.
Together, we can send a bold message to CCAMLR: that we, the public, are watching and organized and we demand they do their job.