One recent morning on the bottom of the world, Kim Bernard spotted two humpback whales feeding in the Southern Ocean not far from the coast. Dr. Bernard, a biological oceanographer, spent the southern summer at Palmer Station, the United States research outpost on a ledge off the western Antarctic Peninsula.
Dr. Bernard and her team, known to Palmer as “The Psycho Krillers”, are studying the feeding patterns of Antarctic krill, the small, cancer-eyed, shrimp-like crustaceans that are the main food for whales, penguins, seals and seabirds. She is among a growing number of scientists concerned about the effects of a gold rush of sorts as fishing companies rush to the Southern Ocean to catch krill and turn it into animal feed and lucrative omega-3 supplements.
The former Soviet Union began fishing krill in the sea in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Luc Rainville, a graduate student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, discovered that the omega-3s in Antarctic krill are readily available from human body. In 2002, he helped start a company, Neptune Biotechnologies and Bioresources, to bring krill oil to the market as a dietary supplement.
The annual krill harvest is still well within the limits of the Convention for the Conservation of Living Marine Resources of the Antarctic, which regulates fishing in the Southern Ocean. Some scientists say the Antarctic krill fishery is the world’s least exploited marine resource.
But fishing is not the only threat to the krill population. Especially in their larval and juvenile stages, the creatures feed on algae that live on the underside of the sea ice – which retreats as the climate warms.
And while no one argues that Antarctic krill is currently threatened or overexploited, scientists and environmental groups fear that fishing and climate change will affect the krill and Antarctica’s delicate food web, which is being affected by the use of more ships – especially giant factory ships. could prove a double blow depends on them.
“I’m not concerned about the current fishing effort,” said Deborah K. Steinberg, a biological oceanographer at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point, who is Dr. Supervised Bernard’s krill research at Palmer Station. “But I’m worried about the future if the industry really takes off. We have to keep a close eye on that. ”
The western Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than the rest of the world. Winter temperatures have risen about 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 60 years and have reduced sea ice cover. These and other effects of climate change have caused Antarctica krill populations to plummet by 40 to 80 percent over the past three decades around the South Shetland Islands near the tip of the peninsula, according to a May report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published study.
Research, led by Wayne Z. Trivelpiece of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also showed that populations of adelia and chinstrap penguins, which rely heavily on krill, rose by more than 50 percent in the northern peninsula, where krill fishing vessels are concentrated declined.
Marine scientists are working hard to ensure that the Antarctic krill fishery does not collapse like many others, like cod, have. At a November meeting in Hobart, Australia, an international science council called for a more active approach to fisheries management.
“We’d rather not have a krill fishery,” said John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace USA’s Oceans Campaign, who represented the United States at the meeting. “But that’s the world we live in. The fact that they are in the Southern Ocean is also an acknowledgment of the failure of fisheries management on a global scale. “
A new krill harvesting technology introduced by Aker BioMarine of Norway, the largest krill fishing company in the South Atlantic, has made it economically feasible to send ships into the icy waters at the bottom of the world. These factory ships continuously suck up krill (Aker calls it “eco-harvesting”) and process it immediately on the ship. Last year Aker, who began harvesting krill in 2006, bought a second factory ship.
Many large retailers, including CVS, Costco, and Walmart, sell krill oil capsules along with other omega-3 supplements. Most come from krill oil, which is processed by Aker BioMarine and its main competitor Neptune.
The Whole Foods Market pulled krill oil off its shelves in May 2010, spearheading a decline in predatory marine animals – whales, penguins and seals – in krill-fished areas.
But Aker has made two important allies. His krill oil has been approved by the Marine Stewardship Council, a global program that, despite objections from some scientists and environmental organizations, issues labels that certify seafood as sustainable. And Aker has teamed up with WWF-Norway, a branch of the international environmental organization WWF, and paid them an undisclosed amount to help Aker make their fishing practices more sustainable. Aker also provides data on krill populations to WWF Norway and scientists studying krill and its predators.
“Krill is one of the more sustainable fisheries today,” said Matts Johansen, Marketing Director at Aker BioMarine. “Compared to fish oil, it is very sustainable. And it comes from the cleanest waters on earth, without pollutants. “
Wael Massrieh, vice president of scientific affairs at Neptune, said the company is also applying for organic certification and awaiting regulatory approval in the US for a krill oil-based drug. Since “krill is at the bottom of the food chain,” he said, “it doesn’t accumulate as many heavy metals” as fish-based oils.
Vegetarian alternatives, especially algae-based omega-3 oil from the Dutch company Royal DSM NV, are also on the rise. Overall, omega-3 supplement sales in the United States alone topped $ 1 billion in 2009, up from $ 40 million in 1995. Claimed benefits include improving heart, brain, and vision health .
Back on the ground, Dr. Bernard did far more on krill health than human health one recent morning when she dipped an echo sounder from her rubber dinghy into the Southern Ocean, the water of which was only 31 degrees Fahrenheit.
The reading looked good. “There has been a massive influx!” She wrote via email. “I had never seen so much krill on the echogram before.”
She collected almost 1,000 krill in a plankton net. A nearby whale was ready to catch the whales that Dr. Bernard had missed; It can eat four tons of krill every day.
Dr. Bernard attributed the abundance to a healthy accumulation of sea ice last winter. But the long-term trend is less certain, she said, and that doesn’t bode well for krill or the larger creatures that depend on them.
Just a year earlier on a good day, she found she had caught just 10 solitary krill.