Krill, baby, krill

Posted by Willie — 26 May 2010 at 3:23pm - Comments

Krill and other plankton are being viewed as a potential food source, but at what cost? (c) cbcastro

We humans are an inventive species. We never tire of finding new ways to do things. Just as we are plundering ever-stupider places to feed our dependency on fossil fuels, so we're unerringly heading to the most environmentally-damaging places to feed our hunger for fish.

The Marine Stewardship Council has just decided to certify Antarctic krill. This is utter madness.

For those of you unfamiliar with these critters, krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that swarm in their millions in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean, just off the ice edge. Krill are plankton. Their huge swarms are the basis for the very simple food web in Antarctic waters. Penguins, seals, whales and everything else we associate with the southernmost ocean depend on krill, directly or indirectly.

It's the vast summer swarms of krill that feed the hungry baleen whales which migrate back to the Southern Ocean to feed. They arrive exhausted after mammoth migrations from their breeding grounds to gorge and replenish their massive bodies with the abundant krill. Which is why something like 80% of the world's large whales come here to feast.

But for all the talk of 'millions', 'swarms', and 'abundance', all is not well in krill-ville. Much like all other species they are threatened by the effects of climate change. But krill are on the front line. Despite being numerous by nature they depend on precise conditions, and live at the edge of the sea ice. Scientists studying krill know one thing, and that's that there's a heck of a lot we don't yet know about krill. Their surveys indicate huge variations in krill numbers ... and many of them are justly concerned. But as our friends at Pew point out, Climate Change impacts aren't even taken into account in assessing the 'sustainability' of the species.

So in this arena of uncertainty should we really be okaying krill fishing? It's one of those industries that are on the brink of a huge expansion. Like anchovies and sand eels, krill are caught and then ground up and turned into food for other animals, what is technically known as 'industrial fishing'.

There are already vast vessels hoovering up krill, and other nations are keen to join in. My problem with this is that we are fishing so far down the food chain, and so far away, to the very ends of the planet, that we are clearly running out of options. Should we take a gamble on krill? What happens if we trash that too? We don't exactly have a good record so far on managing the things we fish...

By certifying some krill fishing there's a tacit approval that this whole shebang is okay. Fishing plankton, to make into oils, meal, or supplements. The proceeds will either be fed to farmed animals on land and in the water, or sold for a nice profit for nutrition-conscious people. Maybe they'll put a picture of a starving whale or a sad penguin on the packets?

We've seen what our thirst for oil does. Yet even now we have the real prospect of allowing more and more drilling and excavation that will wreak havoc and destroy ecosystems we all care about. What will be the eventual outcome of our hunger for seafood?

The last time we set sail from the top of the globe to plunder the seas of the Antarctic was about a century ago, when British and Norwegian vessels began the horror of factory whaling in the Southern Ocean.

What, exactly, are we unleashing now?

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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