Antarctic Krill Fishing — The Pink Rush

by Willie Mackenzie

March 20, 2018

Krill are tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that are the basis of most life in the Antarctic Ocean. They’re food for everything from penguins to giant whales.

© Andrea Izzotti / Thinkstock

To catch krill you have to think like a hungry blue whale. Antarctic krill are not much bigger than the tip of your finger, which means there’s no point trying to catch them one at a time – you need a massive mouthful to make it worth your while. So it’s handy that krill gather together in gigantic swarms of millions.

The next thing you need to do is separate the yummy krill from the mouthful of seawater, and make sure that your krill-catching equipment doesn’t let the krill escape. In whales that’s where the large plates of baleen in their mouths come in handy, filtering the water out, but keeping tasty morsels like krill in.

Humans catch Antarctic krill too, and the principle is the same – except they use high tech equipment, massive boats, and enormous nets. The nets are exceptionally fine-meshed so that the tiny krill don’t escape, and the krill is hauled or sucked onboard to be processed on the factory vessels.

Krill, Euphausia superba, represents a critical component of the Antarctic food web, providing food for fish, whales, seals, penguins, albatross and other seabirds, as well as marine invertebrates.
Greenpeace is on a three-month expedition to the Antarctic to carry out scientific research, including seafloor submarine dives, to highlight the urgent need for the creation of a 1.8 million square kilometer Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary. Key findings from the footage and samples gathered from the submarine dives will be shared with the Antarctic Ocean Commission (CCAMLR) to establish localized protections as well as to strengthen this and other upcoming proposals for marine protection in the Antarctic.

Krill is processed at sea to remove the water, leaving just the dried-out krill. It’s from this that oil is extracted to make Omega-3 supplement pills – and the rest becomes industrial ‘fish meal’. Hardly any of the krill that is caught in the Antarctic Ocean is used for direct human consumption. It’s much more likely to end up as salmon feed, or in pet food.

It’s a wretched end for the most important critter in the Antarctic Ocean. And it’s a part of the global fishing industry that’s quietly increasing in size, reach and appetite.

Since pretty much everything down there eats krill, an expanding fishing industry is bad news for Antarctic animals that are already struggling in warming seas.

The clear dangers of krill fishing

The krill fishing industry likes to brand itself sustainable and low-impact, but the reality is that we don’t know what the long-term prospects are for krill. The wide-ranging impacts of climate change in the Antarctic Ocean are likely to have a profound effect on ice-dependent krill, so it’s hard to speculate on future sustainability.

The localized impacts of krill fishing could be disastrous for animals like penguins, whales, and seals that feed in that one area – much like if your local supermarket was entirely cleared out.

Krill fishing vessels in the vicinity of Trinity Island.
Greenpeace is conducting scientific research and documenting the Antarctic’s unique wildlife, to strengthen the proposal to create the largest protected area on the planet, an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary.

This is only made worse if an animal is tied to an area because that’s where they need to be to raise their young. That’s why our new report is so worrying. We’ve discovered a clear overlap of krill fishing close to shore in areas where breeding penguins feed, and where whales travel thousands of miles to feast. In these areas the huge, relentlessly effective, fishing vessels are in direct competition with the animals who call the Antarctic home.

We’ve also uncovered that large refrigerated vessels (known as ‘reefers’) are also being used to offload the krill catch, thereby allowing the fishing vessels to fish more, and fish longer.

How we can protect krill – and the Antarctic

This year, we have a unique opportunity to protect the Antarctic by creating a massive ocean sanctuary. Our ask to the Antarctic Commission is a simple one: don’t allow the industry to expand further – and make sure areas important for wildlife like penguins and whales are totally off limits.

Protecting the Antarctic Ocean is meaningless if the very lifeblood of that ocean, Antarctic krill, is being fished out of the areas most important for wildlife.

So the very least we can do is take a step back, and keep fishing boats out of the way of hungry whales and penguins. After all, more krill in the ocean is good news for tackling climate change, which benefits us just as much as it benefits the penguins.

By Willie Mackenzie

Willie Mackenzie is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK.

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