Krill crisis

Your average Antarctic krill might not seem anything too spectacular. Joe Krill will live five to six years if things go well, he will grow to six centimetres and will dine on marine algae while alive. In combination krill populate the Southern Ocean in quantities weighing in the hundreds of millions of tonnes. Yet increased fishing is threatening them and that is dreadful news.

Although each single krill might be underestimated as a small shrimp-like crustacean, their sheer numbers make them one of the largest protein sources on Earth and they are eagerly sought by fish, penguins, squid, whales, and now: humans.

The expanding global fish-farming industry is increasingly relying on krill-based fish feed. In addition, enzymes and substances derived from krill are becoming popular in supplements and medical products. Krill oil supplements are becoming a sought after source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

Krill’s popularity is also its greatest problem. The total krill catch for the current season is projected to be between 150 000 and 180 000 tonnes. This is a 40 per cent increase on last season’s catch. This increased fishing and climatic pressures are putting pressure on the krill populations that may spell their doom.

An increasing number of fishing vessels are being employed in the Southern Ocean in search of krill. Norway now has three krill ships and China is expected to rapidly increase its krill fleet having sent out its first ship this year. As well as being subjected to increased fishing, it may be that Antarctic krill are feeling the heat of climate change.

Krill larvae feed on algae living on the bottom of sea ice. However, that sea ice is dwindling rapidly around the Antarctic peninsular. One estimate is that since the 1970s the number of krill in the Southern Ocean may have dropped by 80 per cent.

Much remains unknown about krill. We still do not know how transient or stable krill numbers are in any given area and what numbers live below 200 metres. What we do know though, is that krill are a vital part of the Antarctic ecosystem and therefore of the planetary balance. Better monitoring and management of these crucial crustaceans is required sooner rather than too late.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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