Antarctic Krill: a new sustainability challenge?

Antarctic Krill: a new sustainability challenge?

April 12, 2018

Antarctic Krill: a new sustainability challenge?

These tiny cold sea crustaceans are enjoying growing popularity as sources of omega 3, but increased fishing and climate change are endangering this precious ecosystem resource, and raise doubts about the sustainability of their consumption.

Euphausia superba is the scientific name of a tiny crustacean that lives mainly in the cold waters of Antarctica, and is a critical element of the ecosystem of this area of the world. In Asia, antarctic krill, as it is commonly known, has always been part of local food traditions, but today the interest towards this resource is linked to other uses, for example as food for fish farms or as ingredient in the production of supplements and nutraceuticals, particularly of the US and European markets. 

At the bottom of the food chain

The estimated biomass of antarctic krill reaches 380 million tons, an amount that exceeds that of the human population and makes this species one of the most abundant on our planet. 

The significance of these little crustaceans is not about their abundance, it has to do with the fact that krill is the main food source for most sea predators in the antarctic oceans. Penguins, seals, whales and many fishes consume huge amounts of krill, an essential link of the food chain in this delicate ecosystem. By eating fytoplancton (microscopic algae), krill passes on the algae's precious nutrients to other animals at different levels of the food chain. There is more. Since these crustaceans move vertically - closer to the surface during the day, deeper at night - they ensure feeding for species that live at different depths, from sea birds to squid. 


Strict controls

How can we safeguard such an important element for the equilibrium of the entire ecosystem? The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources- CCAMLR) is the body which is most involved in supervising and regulating krill fishing in the Antarctic sea. Set up in 1982, driven by concerns over the sustainability of the soaring demand for this crustacean, the Commission is composed of 25 international members who organize regular meetings involving scientists, fishermen and also Non-Governmental Organizations to work together on the protection of the Antarctic ecosystem. "Our approach puts at the center the conservation of the ecosystem", the CCAMLR experts explain on their official website. “Fishing is allowed, as long as it respects the environment and its sustainability”, they add. 

Following what the CCAMLR established, currently krill can only be fished in four clearly identified regions of the Antarctica, and only in compliance with the sustainability thresholds of 620,000 tons per year. A prudent approach, aimed at minimizing the environmental impact rather than maximizing the amount of krill we are allowed to catch. 

Future challenges

Even though krill fishing appears to be designed to guarantee sustainability and respect for the ecosystem, many experts express concern over several future challenges that may change the status quo. Once again, at the forefront is climate change, which is especially noticeable in the Antarctica region.

A reduction of Antarctic ice could threaten the krill habitats, and increased temperature would force the tiny crustaceans to use more energy, affecting their growth. In addition to temperature rise, acidification of the oceans, which is linked to carbon dioxide production, could make many areas inhospitable for krill, especially for their new generations. 


Last but not least, the fishing methods, increasingly based on ships fishing huge quantities of krill and processing it on site, could threaten the balance achieved with current regulations. The experts from CCAMLR are looking at these challenges and researching solutions that can also contribute to global food security.

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