ABOARD THE ALLANKAY off Antarctica — The frigid waters around Antarctica are emerging as a major battleground between industry and activists as advances in technology and new demand for krill as a dietary supplement drive more and more fishing of the shrimp-like crustacean.
That has some scientists warning that stricter controls must be put in place so krill can continue its vital role as a buffer against climate change and sustenance for whales, penguins and other marine mammals. But any further action is mired in geopolitical wrangling as Russia and China look to quickly expand catch limits in the remote waters.
Two Associated Press journalists spent more than two weeks at sea in March aboard a conservation vessel operated by Sea Shepherd Global to take a rare, up-close look at the world’s southernmost fishery.
This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
WHAT IS KRILL?
Tiny but bountiful, Antarctic krill make up one of the planet’s largest biomasses, nourishing everything from fish to giant humpback whales.
Lesser known is krill’s important role fighting climate change by feeding on even smaller marine algae that absorb greenhouse gases burned by humans.
In this way, krill remove as much as 23 megatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, according to new research published by the World Wildlife Fund. That’s the equivalent of taking off the road 5 million cars every year.
“Krill are worth more to nature and people left in the ocean than removed or lost through sea ice disappearance,” said Emma Cavan, one of the study’s authors.
WHO IS PROFITING?
The Soviet Union in the 1960s launched the first industrial krill fleet, in search of an untapped protein source that could be canned like sardines. Today, around 10-12 trawlers from five nations — Chile, China, Norway, South Korea and Ukraine — harvest krill, which has its biggest commercial use as an ingredient fed to farm-raised fish.
“The fish love it,” said Brett Glencross, technical director of IFFO, a trade organization for the marine ingredients industry. “It’s like dipping your Brussels sprouts in chocolate to get kids to eat their vegetables.”
One company, Aker BioMarine, from Norway, is responsible for around 70% of the catch, which has soared from 104,728 metric tons in 2007 to 415,508 metric tons in 2022. It’s also driving innovation in how krill is fished and marketed.
Its big bet: tiny red krill oil capsules manufactured in Houston that are packed with omega-3. The supplements are marketed for their purported role in promoting heart, brain and joint health.
WHAT CRITICS SAY?
The jury is out on whether krill oil is superior to traditional fish oil. And omega-3 supplements — krill or otherwise — haven’t been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Meanwhile, the stakes are high.
In 2021 and 2022, four humpback whales were entangled in one of Aker BioMarine’s nets. Researchers have also identified krill fishing and shrinking sea ice as threats to the reproductive rates of humpback whales.
“The marine foragers are there for the same reason the boats are: because there’s lots of krill,” said Ari Friedlaender, a University of California, Santa Cruz biologist. “Some level of conflict is inevitable.”
The burning of dirty fossil fuels to fish in such remote waters also carries a heavy carbon footprint.
The industry says concerns of overfishing are misplaced given the huge investments required and that krill can be a sustainable source of protein for a growing global population. Currently less than 1% of the estimated 60 million metric tons of krill found in the main Antarctic fishing grounds — an area larger than the U.S. — is being caught.
“Some people believe we shouldn’t fish at all, we should all be vegetarians, we shouldn’t be in Antarctica,” said Aker BioMarine CEO Matts Johansen. He says krill can be and is fished responsibly.
HOW IS KRILL FISHING REGULATED?
Refereeing the fight over the fishery’s future is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR. Delegates from the group’s 27 member states are gathering this month at their annual meeting in Australia to continue negotiations over a long overdue refresh of the krill management plan.
The organization has emerged as a model for science-based cooperation on the high seas — lawless waters that comprise nearly half the planet. Its mission is to promote conservation, not fishing.
A U.S.-led coalition has been calling for more restrictions and marine reserves. But it has met stiff opposition from China and Russia, which have made no secret of their geopolitical ambitions in the white continent.
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