Scientific research and conservation need more cash. That’s sadly usually true. It’s especially the case in the Antarctic where research is expensive but absolutely essential given the massive environmental changes happening there.

But although new streams of funding should welcomed for Antarctic research, it’s also important to question where that funding comes from. After all, there’s just a sliver of a chance that some seemingly good PR is actually a mind-bogglingly cynical act of greenwashing.

Step forward Aker Biomarine, one of the world’s biggest and brashest krill-hoovering companies. Aker are behind the now-ubiquitous krill supplement pills that are being sold worldwide as a cure to… well, I could insert just about any ailment here. Their deadly efficient fishing technology allows them to literally vacuum up swarms of tiny plankton from the Southern Ocean. And they have just announced a new fund for Antarctic research.

Adelie Penguins in Commonwealth Bay © Greenpeace / Steve Morgan

Adelie penguins, Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica

Krill, as most kids know, is penguin and whale food. It’s a tiny shrimp-like crustacean. Vast swarms live in cold polar waters, and are mostly found in large numbers in the Southern Ocean. And the numbers are HUGE. Mind-bogglingly big numbers of these little critters exist around the Antarctic sea ice, efficiently turning the sun’s energy and plant plankton into crunchy crustacean morsels. But krill is not just whale food. It’s also penguin, fish, albatross and seal food. Basically almost every animal that feeds in Antarctic waters either directly eats krill, or eats something that does. Massive baleen whales, like blue, fin, and minkes, trek thousands of miles each year to feast on Antarctic krill. Two of the three resident Antarctic penguin species, the Gentoo and Adélies eat krill. Adélies eat so much it turns their poo pink. And there are even amazingly-adapted seals with teeth designed to filter the little creatures out of the water.

Krill are the Southern Ocean’s keystone species. That’s an ecological term for a species that the entire ecosystem depends on. Remove the keystone, and the whole thing might collapse.

So when it comes to hoovering up krill, I’m already a sceptic. When you take into account the massive fluctuations and potentially catastrophic impact that warming polar waters is having on krill populations, then it’s even more of a worry. Adélie and Gentoo penguin populations are already struggling to find food, but the broader impacts to other species might not be so easy to see. In a world where polar regions are suffering most from climate change, and ocean acidification, removing a huge chunk of the very basis of the food web is a seriously silly move. A few years ago Greenpeace’s Science Unit produced a paper which set out very clearly why the Aker krill fishery should not be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.  The arguments presented in that paper are just as valid today.

Krill capsules, sold as such a wonder drug that makes you think there might be an actual genie in the bottle, are already ubiquitous. But there’s more to come. As well as ‘essential’ supplements, krill is also being used to make meal for feeding farmed fish and livestock. And the industry is poised to expand. It’s seen as an ‘as yet untapped resource’ which is there to be had in world where traditional fish populations are under so much stress elsewhere. But hey, what could go wrong? Well, the last time there was a Southern Ocean goldrush we almost exterminated the world’s great whales. A century on and we are back in the same ocean, but at the opposite end of the food chain.

I’m in Australia at the moment, where Aker have announced their shiny new deal at a swanky event with the Australian Environment Minister, and the Norwegian Royal Family. I’ve seen krill marketed in supermarkets and pharmacies everywhere here, just as it is in the US and UK. Some of it is even marketed as ‘EcoKrill’ which frankly broke my irony-meter. I wonder if the Adélie penguins, crabeater seals or blue whales think it’s ‘eco’?

I’m all for more funds for scientific research, and conservation is notoriously poorly valued or prioritised. But for the industry hoovering-up the most important part of the Antarctic food web to be putting its krill-gotten gains into this greenwash really is a pill that’s hard to swallow.

Willie Mackenzie is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK.