Krilling for Oil

Conservationists are sounding the alarm over the international race to exploit the Antarctic's krill swarms.

Lulu Ning Hui, 23 Aug 2021


For several months a year, more than a dozen international ships travel long and treacherous journeys to reach Antarctica. Here, they take part in what is touted as one of the most sustainable seafood harvesting operations in the world — the Antarctic krill fishery.

The vessels vacuum up swarms of Antarctic krill — over a thousand tonnes a day on some ships — which are then processed into krill oil pills, one of the latest products on the dietary supplement market.

With krill being the most abundant species on earth, bearing an estimated population of 400 million tonnes in the Antarctic alone, it’s hard to imagine that fishing these beady-eyed crustaceans could make a dent in the vast Antarctic ecosystem.

And yet, that’s exactly what conservationists are sounding the alarm about. 

As part of its collaborative investigation on IUU fishing, the Environmental Reporting Collective found that over the past year, powerful nations like Russia and China, as well as a billionaire-owned Norwegian company, are stepping up their presence in the Southern Ocean.  As the climate continues to warm rapidly, these players are all hoping to stake their claim in the supposedly sustainable krill rush.

“It's pretty worrisome when you've got fisheries exploring these ‘unexploited’ areas or discovering large stocks of fish. This really should raise eyebrows because what’s really driving that expansion? Krill oil is obviously one factor,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia.

On the other hand, the vessels that harvest krill are known to have responsible fishing practices. They actively report their locations and diligently count the amount of krill that is harvested. More importantly, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the international organisation managing the Antarctic krill fishery, insists that these practices cause no disruption to the surrounding marine ecosystem. 

Though, with an upcoming meeting of the nations involved to decide on new protections that could safeguard Antarctic krill — and by extension the penguins, whales, and seals that depend on krill as a food source — the conservation of one the world’s final untapped frontiers is at stake.

The old and new krill fishing kings

Krill fishing in the Antarctic began in the ’60s, by the Soviet Union. It started as an experiment, and became more permanent a decade later. Japan followed in 1975 and harvests peaked in the early '80s when other nations joined, but the market was always largely dominated by the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, krill fishery diminished. Only a few countries continued with it, but at much lower capacities. It wasn’t until 2003 that a new major player emerged.

Enter Aker BioMarine from Norway. The company is part of the larger Aker empire, mainly owned by Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke. With a presence in oil and gas, construction, marine biotechnology and energy, branching out to krill harvesting in 2006 was the latest investment for the industrial giant.

Since then, the krill industry has grown, with Russia investing $640 million to kickstart its krill fishing efforts and South Korea increasing its number of registered fishing vessels

New Chinese companies also joined the race, with massive, high-tech vessels described by an industry newsletter as "glitzy" and "eye-catching", capable of not only catching but also immediately processing 1,000 to 1,300 tonnes of krill per day. These floating krill oil factories are as large as 100m in length, and 20m wide — the length of a football field.

The design of the Shen Lan krill trawler, one of several high-tech krill fishing vessels from China. Photo: Wärtsilä.

Still, their journey to the Antarctic Peninsula — where most of the world’s krill fishing takes place — is far from straightforward. The closest ports are Ushuaia, Argentina and Punta Arenas, Chile, where the first leg of the journey involves crossing the Drake Passage, known to seafarers and adventure junkies as one of the roughest sea-passages in the world.

Many krill fishing vessels have to voyage through the Drake Passage to enter the Antarctic, despite the passage's extremely rough and turbulent waters.

At best, the voyage is turbulent. At worst, crews can face waves that are over 40 feet high. Known as the gateway to the Antarctic, a typical crossing for a medium-sized vessel can take two to three days.

“It’s the furriest, the windiest passage,” says Ekaterina Uryupova, visiting fellow at The Arctic Institute. 

“It's not like you could just take a small boat and go and start to harvest krill. You have to prepare yourself and be ready for all kinds of weather, for all kinds of situations. Then you have to find the best location to catch krill, and then once your fridges are full, you have to cover the same distance back.”

Given how dangerous and costly it is, why are so many countries and companies still taking the trip, literally to the end of the world, to catch krill?

Krill vs fish oil industry

At the size of a paper clip, Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) is mostly used for aquaculture, and as feed for pets and livestock. In recent years, however, its oil has become increasingly popular as a dietary supplement due to its superior health benefits compared to fish oil.

Antarctic krill oil products are touted to be more effective in delivering omega-3 fatty acids to the bloodstream. This is linked to many benefits, primarily improved heart and brain health. The US military even considered making it a part of the diet for its troops.

Size of Antarctic krill compared with a teaspoon. Photo by Jordi Chias, National Geographic Pristine Seas.
Size of Antarctic krill compared with a teaspoon. Photo: Jordi Chias, National Geographic Pristine Seas.

With concerns growing over overfishing and the quality of fish oil supply chains, producers also regularly promote the sustainability and purity of their krill products, positioning them as a premium alternative. One bottle sold on Amazon reads: “Our krill is sustainably harvested from pristine waters and processed under ideal conditions to ensure maximum nutrient quality.”

Antarctic krill oil generally costs consumers 3-4 times more than regular fish oil, and yet market research projects that the industry will have an annual compound growth rate of over 13% between now and 2023.

Diminishing fish stock may be one of the factors behind this. Currently, almost one-fifth of the world’s total catch of wild fish is processed into fish oil and fishmeal (an ingredient mostly used to feed farm animals). Most supply chains for these industries are extremely non-transparent, making it almost impossible to tell where and how the fish was caught. Additionally, research into industry practices shows high levels of exploitation and unregulated practices. 

In Peru, for example, almost 30% of fish oil exports are linked to overfishing and underreported catches of juvenile anchovies, as well as critical health and safety violations of the fisheries during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Other fisheries, including in India and Vietnam, have also shown irresponsible and harmful illegal, unreported and unregulated habits, implicating retailers from across Europe and North America. 

In contrast, the supply chain of Antarctic krill is more transparent and regulated.

Those within the industry say that the overall catch of krill in the Southern Ocean is very low. Less than 1% of the total amount of krill available is harvested annually. 

While this number generally remains true, there is a complex web of competing international actors, questionable management, signs of overfishing, and a worrying lack of data behind the figures.

“Sustainability has more to do with how the fishery is being managed, and depends on the amount of krill that has been extracted, and the location,” said Rodolfo Werner, senior advisor for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. 

“In the end, it’s not how much krill you extract, but when and where. Those are elements that are important to keep in mind.”

Product Controversy

In 2010, Aker BioMarine became the first fishery to be awarded a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, a label signifying that its fishing operations met sustainability standards. MSC is an independent non-profit organization which certifies fisheries that meet international best practices for sustainable fishing.

Aker BioMarine has since been recertified, and awarded high grades after inspection

The decision was not made without controversy. Environmental groups criticized MSC for ignoring irrefutable evidence, stating “the certification gives the false impression that the entire fishery for Antarctic krill is sustainable when, in reality, it is not.” 

“The position that we had was based on the fact that they were applying for the certification of their krill fishing operations, but they did not have any control over the other krill fishing operators. Normally, the MSC certification (is) applied to a fishery, not to a particular company,” said Werner.

MSC justified their certification by pointing to the low levels of catch for the highly-abundant species. 

But supermarket giants were persuaded by anti-harvest advocates, and several successful petitions between 2010 and 2018 led to a ban of krill oil products in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, WholeFoods, Holland & Barrett and other retailers.

The loudest advocate against krill harvesting was Greenpeace, who in 2018 protested the expansion of the fishing operations. The organization stressed that the fishery was putting the entire Antarctic food web at risk, since vessels travelled close to penguin colonies and whale-feeding grounds.

“If krill goes, they are keystone species, then everything that eats them dies. Their contribution is critical to the survival of other species,” said Phelps Bondaroff.

A sea lion lying on snow in the Antarctic Peninsula.  Photo by Jordi Chias, National Geographic Pristine Seas.
As a keystone species, the krill population in the Antarctic is critical to the survival of other species in the area, such as this sea lion in the Antarctic Peninsula.  Photo: Jordi Chias, National Geographic Pristine Seas.

That same year, Aker BioMarine put out a sustainability statement, claiming that “there is no evidence to suggest that the krill fishery is affecting the krill population to the extent that populations of whales, seals, and penguins are suffering.” Three years later, they still stand by that statement. 

“For our own benefit, we take these things very seriously,” said Pål Skogrand, head of sustainability and Antarctic affairs at Aker BioMarine. “But there's a big difference between saying that something is happening and that something possibly could be happening. I have yet to see science that tells me that krill fishery effects on penguins is happening.”

In July of 2018, a rare announcement was made by a group of the largest krill fishing companies known as the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK). The consortium, which includes Aker BioMarine, announced that it would voluntarily stop fishing in areas around the Antarctic Peninsula during the winter. These "voluntary restricted zones" are home to breeding colonies of penguins

Effects on biodiversity

To understand how sustainable the fishery is, one has to understand the geography of the Southern Ocean. 

Encompassing the Antarctic Peninsula is a section known as Area 48, an immensely biodiverse region, and home to 62.6 million tonnes of krill, according to a 2019 biomass estimate. 

Most of the 12 or so krill fishing vessels that are currently in the Antarctic operate in this region. Although the fishery operates year-round, vessels usually fish in specific areas during particular seasons. 

The four subareas within Area 48. Krill fishing efforts are mainly concentrated within these subareas, where conservationists say the ecosystems are fragile.

They usually start in the north, in South Georgia (an island southwest of Argentina), and move south towards the peninsula as it gets warmer. One hotspot along the way is the South Orkney Islands, where krill swarms concentrate in the summer, between December and February. 

After that, the vessels move further south to the peninsula — the northernmost tip of the continent. Known as subarea 48.1, this is a prime krill fishing zone, and home to millions of penguins. Due to the fragility of the penguin population, the krill fishing fleet associated with ARK agreed to avoid fishing in an area of up to 40km from the penguin colonies during their breeding season in the winter.

The voluntary restriction zones taken up by the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK) in subarea 48.1. The VRZs are around penguin colonies in the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands during breeding season.

“It's hard to catch krill. It's extremely expensive, and if you are going to catch krill, you will want to go to an area where it's very reliable in very high densities,” said David Agnew, Executive Secretary of CCAMLR. 

Conservationists firmly disagree with Aker BioMarine’s sustainability statement, saying there is a definite localized impact when the fisheries operate close to wildlife.

“That claim is not based on reality because a krill vessel directly competes with wildlife, and in doing so, directly impacts that wildlife,” said Phelps Bondaroff.

Research from last year indicated that concentrated krill fishing is reducing locally-available amounts of krill for land-based predators, which has led to negative impacts on penguins, including population declines for certain species

Changes to krill populations are proving to be critical, too. A recent study from June indicates that krill populations are projected to decline by 30% by the end of this century due to widespread negative effects from human-driven climate change.

A colony of penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo by Manu San Felix, National Geographic Pristine Seas.
A colony of penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Manu San Felix, National Geographic Pristine Seas.

Another study from 2019 showed a potential massive shift of the entire krill population towards the south as ocean temperatures continue to rise. This could lead to increased competition for food among krill-dependent animals. 

“When you think about Antarctica, at some point, you can’t move south anymore. You’re going to hit the continent, so the krill habitat is shrinking,” said Nicole Bransome, an officer for the Southern Ocean with The Pew Charitable Trusts.  

The same study also revealed that krill are facing increasing difficulty in replenishing their population and maintaining high numbers at the northern edge of the Southern Ocean, close to Area 48. 

However, some scientists side with Aker BioMarine’s statement, noting a myriad of threats to penguin populations that are more complex and possibly more harmful than the krill fishery. 

Although research shows there are overlaps in where penguins breed and forage, and where the fishery operates, they both are rarely there at the same time. 

Penguins swimming off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo by Jordi Chias, National Geographic  Pristine Seas.
Penguins swimming in the Antarctic. Though the krill fishery does not operate whenever and wherever the penguins normally breed, conservationists believe there are too many unknown factors to be certain that the fishery does not cause harm. Photo: Jordi Chias, National Geographic Pristine Seas.

According to Andy Lowther, a quantitative ecologist for the Southern Ocean at the Norwegian Polar Institute, when penguins breed in the Bransfield Strait, for example, the fishery is mostly operating elsewhere. The fleet usually moves in during the spring months of March to May (if conditions allow), at which point most breeding is over. 

But Ron Naveen, the founder of Oceanites, an organisation that, among other things, is working to understand why penguin populations are changing in the Antarctic, says the amount of krill fishing and interference of fishing activity during the penguin breeding season may still be a threat to penguin populations. 

However, both contend that there is simply not enough data to determine if this causality holds true. An area of large concern is within the South Orkney Islands, where there is the least amount of collected information, according to Lowther. 

“The great unknown is when penguins finish that breeding season, the kids grow up, they leave the nest and they go and fend for themselves. So these fledglings hit the water for the first time, in late February, early March, and we don’t know where they go,” said Lowther.

It’s unknown if, at this point, there are harmful overlaps between the young penguins and fishing operations, just as it’s equally unknown if higher krill harvesting is affecting adult penguins before their next breeding season. 

“Whether the fishery is causing harm or the fishery is not causing harm is a lot more complicated than that. And the simple fact is, we don't know anything. It's a bit of criticism both ways. There's evidence to say there is. There's evidence to say there isn't,” said Lowther.

Krill management and Area 48

The Antarctic krill fishery is managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Established in 1982 as part of the Antarctic Treaty System, it was largely created to respond to concerns over the impact krill fishing was having on marine life in the Southern Ocean. 

Today, the CCAMLR is the decision-making body of 26 international member nations including the European Union. The Commission manages conservation measures — which are adopted by consensus — that regulate the krill fishery. 

These measures include limiting the amount of allowed catch, monitoring vessels and gear restrictions. 

Above all, CCAMLR’s mandate is to protect the species that are dependent on krill. 

“It’s the tightest regime, anywhere,” said Agnew.

In 2010, CCAMLR put in place a catch limit in Area 48, placing strict controls on the fishery. The limit was set at 620,000 tonnes, which is less than 1% of the overall catch. If that limit is hit, all fishing activity ceases until the following season. 

Fears of concentrated fishing also pushed CCAMLR to impose sub-area catch limits across four sections in Area 48 (namely 48.1, 48.2, 48.3 and 48.4) in 2009 — a move known as Conservation Measure 51-07. 

“The fishing was conducted in a very concentrated way in the Antarctic Peninsula, meaning that the fishery was fishing over and over in certain areas close to the coast where, on one side are colonies of penguins and on the other side are areas popular for foraging whales,” said Werner. “You could catch wherever you wanted until you reached the 620,000 limit.” 

Area 48.1 got the smallest amount of catch allowed (155,000 tonnes) because it is an extremely fragile area, with colonies of penguins and seals living close to the shore and actively feeding on krill. In the summer, it also becomes a popular spot for whales to forage for krill.

The RV Investigator in Antarctica during a research voyage. Photo by CSIRO Marine National Facility.‍
Whales swimming off the coast of Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Jordi Chias, National Geographic Pristine Seas

Between 2010 and 2020, the catch limit in Area 48.1 was reached eight times, resulting in the closure of the fishery before the end of the fishing season. 

With more interest in krill from more nations, the catch limit is being reached at much quicker levels. During the 2019-2020 season, it took 69 days to reach 95% of the allowable catch in Area 48.1, almost twice as fast as it was in the past five years. 

“So they're not overfishing in the entire Antarctic, but if you look at these very small areas, they are. And that's what actually matters to the wildlife there,” said Bransome.

In 2020, boats operating within Area 48 caught 446,783 tonnes of krill — the highest level ever reached. Out of this, roughly 240,000 tonnes were caught by Aker BioMarine, according to Skogrand. 

Within a single year, China more than doubled its catch, from 50,423 tonnes in 2019 to 118,353 in 2020, according to CCAMLR’s catch report. As the country launches new vessels promoting more efficient krill harvesting techniques, hitting these catch limits will be even quicker.  

One such vessel is the 115-meter Shen Lan, which was launched last year. It is capable of catching and processing 1,000 to 1,300 tonnes per day. Another, said to be the world’s largest krill trawler at 140-meters, is set to be available in 2023.  

“These ships can process thousands (of tonnes) a day, and we're talking about operating 24/7 because it's constant daylight. It wouldn't take long for one fishing vessel like that to fill that hold very quickly and by extension, get much closer to that quota,” said Phelps Bondaroff. “If you're really pushing up to the last number of fish that you can pull out of the water, that doesn't give any buffer for challenges like climate change.” 

The most recent krill biomass estimates, which quantify how much krill is in the region, were conducted in 2000 and 2019. For nearly two decades, the fishery was operating without full knowledge of how much krill was available. 

“There was a lot of concern about that from NGOs and others. The currency of the 2000 survey has long since passed,” said Agnew.

Currently, the catch limits are a problem, according to NGOs and researchers. The numbers imposed in Area 48 by Conservation Measure 51-07 were meant to be temporary, but without consensus on how to better divide the catch limits among sub-areas, it just continued.  

“It came up as an interim measure. The division of the catch limit was done in a very — let’s say — ad-hoc way,” said Werner.  

The conservation measure is set to expire this year, and is up for debate at the upcoming October CCAMLR meeting. If no agreement is made, it will be discontinued in its entirety, leaving the Antarctic Peninsula without localized limits in the region’s most fragile areas. 

Earlier this year, Australia’s science agency CSIRO conducted a research voyage to survey the biomass of krill in the region. The agency said it will provide its estimate to CCAMLR to help the organization to set new catch limits.

The RV Investigator in Antarctica during a research voyage. Photo by CSIRO Marine National Facility.‍
The RV Investigator in Antarctica during a research voyage. Photo: CSIRO Marine National Facility.

“We're mostly concerned about the concentrated manner in which krill is being caught, with very large amounts of krill coming out of very small areas within short periods of time,” said Bransome. “This is still a major problem and this is what we would like to see change.”

For example, between 2010 and 2018, 74% of the total krill catch within subarea 48.1 was caught from locations around the Bransfield Strait that made up just 8% of the whole subarea. In subarea 48.3, it was more concentrated: 95% of the catch came from just 5.6% of the subarea.

Can the fishery and krill coexist?

Krill plays an integral part in the carbon cycle and contributes iron and other nutrients that fertilize the ocean. The Southern Ocean is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, and krill can  influence atmospheric carbon levels. One study found that krill can remove up to 12 billion tonnes of carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere.

“I would worry that any fishery down there is sustainable just because we don't know the impact of climate change, but we do know it's going to be bad,” said Phelps Bondaroff.  

The Antarctic Peninsula is among the fastest warming regions of the planet, increasing in temperature by almost 3°C over the last 50 years. 

According to Agnew, current catch limits should be responsive to changing situations such as climate change, increasing catches and distributions of krill populations. 

“At the moment, the catch limit that is being applied is not sensitive to that,” he said.

An iceburg during sunset in the Antarctic. Photo by Merinda McMahon.
An iceberg during sunset in the Antarctic. There have been proposals for Marine Protected Areas (MPA) to be established in several areas across the region. Photo by Merinda McMahon.

A proposed solution is to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA), which US President Joe Biden’s administration voiced its support for in April this year. Currently, only 5% of the Southern Ocean is protected; the first MPA was established in the southern part of the South Orkney Islands in 2009 and was followed by a marine park in the Ross Sea region in 2016. 

But in last year’s annual CCAMLR meeting, the much-anticipated decision to create MPAs in East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea, and the Antarctic Peninsula was left without consensus, disappointing many.

Negotiations are difficult. Any new MPA, like all other conservation measures, requires the consensus of all CCAMLR members. This time around, more countries expressed support, like Australia and Uruguay for the Weddell Sea, and Norway and Uruguay for the East Antarctica proposal. But progress remained stalled because of China and Russia, who continued to oppose the proposals, pushing to maintain their fishing rights.

In 2016, China and Russia did agree to a protected area in the Ross Sea, after consistently vetoing it in the past. 

Every species in Antarctica feeds on krill or on another species that feeds on krill. Graphics: Yunroo & Lim Wei

Yet, scientists are unsure how effective an MPA will be, given that the ones proposed are static rather than adaptive. Krill are migratory species, which means they do not stay within a set boundary. Having a proposed border for no-fishing may be fruitless if swarms of krill move outside those boundaries, according to Phelps Bondaroff. 

“What you're trying to protect is not the ocean water. You're trying to protect the species that move through it,” he said. “So a marine protected area may not make sense insofar as krill movement dynamics are concerned.”

There is potential for a krill fishery to sustainably coexist with local species, according to Naveen, as long as the ecosystem is monitored and appropriate management is in place. 

Bransome echoes this statement, adding that certain decisions must be made now before it’s too late. In her view, the biomass of krill — which indicates how large the population is — and the stock assessment — which analyzes how much can be fished — need to be updated immediately.

The next, more crucial step is to conduct a risk assessment. 

“That will allow the CCAMLR scientists to figure out how they can set catch limits in space and time to make sure that the predators aren't being impacted by the fishery,” she said.

To Lowther, the concern is less about an uncontrolled fishery and more on the impact of outdated data. “My fear is that the organization that is charged with managing this resource is not really doing their job because they're still stuck in the management routine of what was decided on 10 years ago from data that was collected 20 years ago.”

Race to the bottom

The Southern Ocean is already seeing the troubling effects of climate change. As polar ice continues to melt, more ground opens for the fishery to expand into — expanding the playing field for more nations. 

While conservation measures have been put in place and industry members have contributed to restrictions of their own, it has yet to be seen if the world’s most sustainable fishery can continue to adapt to accelerating changes. 

“It really speaks to what we're doing to our oceans in general, that we fished so much that we now have to go down to this place that's at the bottom of the world. I think it tells you about what we've already done to a lot of our near-shore waters,” said Bransome.