Environmental NGOs, fishing companies split on health of Antarctic krill fishery

Published on
November 12, 2021
ndrea Kavanagh, director of Pew’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean conservation work, said CCAMLR must act as a better steward of the Southern Ocean and its krill fishery.

The recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) heightened divisions between commercial krill-fishing companies and environmental non-governmental organizations claiming the Antarctic krill population is facing an existential threat.

Oslo, Norway-based Aker Biomarine, the world’s largest krill-fishing and -processing company, said the CCAMLR meeting resulted in the continuance of sustainable management practices for the fishery, pointing to a one-year extension of a krill-conservation instrument, CM 51-07, to allow more time to finalize a comprehensive krill-management strategy.

“CCAMLR confirmed its commitment to revising the krill-management strategy and has made a lot of progress in that department,” Aker Sustainability and Antarctic Affairs Director Pål Skogrand said.

While Aker has had a down year in its krill operations – Skogrand told SeafoodSource harvesting has been slow in 2021 due to low krill availability in sub-area 48.3 and challenging ice conditions in August and September in sub-area 48.2 – the company is adamant that krill stocks are in good shape. 

However, The Pew Charitable Trusts had pushed for CCAMLR members to enact more conservation measures for Antarctic krill at the recent meeting, which took place 18 to 29 October in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. CCAMRL is comprised of 26 member-nations and is objective is “the conservation of Antarctic marine life while providing for rational use,” but Andrea Kavanagh, director of Pew’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean conservation work, said CCAMLR must act as a better steward of the Southern Ocean. Specifically, Pew had asked for CCAMLR to fulfill its commitment to establish a circumpolar network of marine protected areas.

“In the 10 years since the East Antarctic marine protection area was proposed, we’ve watched the impacts of climate change in real-time,” she told SeafoodSource. “The evidence is mounting that resilience in the region is needed now.” 

Kavanagh said the addition of India, South Korea, Ukraine, Norway, and Uruguay as co-sponsors of proposed new MPAs for the East Antarctic and Weddell Sea proposals is “a positive sign that progress was possible.”

Kavanagh said the extension of CM 51-07, which aims to protect krill predators from overly concentrated fishing, was a positive step, but not enough on its own. Pew and other environmental NGOs want CCAMLR to finalize a permanent solution “that ensures enough krill is left in the ocean for animals like penguins, seals, and whales that depend on it,” Kavanagh said.

“We know from recent science that this measure alone isn’t enough to keep the ecosystem healthy around the Antarctic Peninsula, which is warming faster than any other place on the planet,” she said.

Kavanagh criticized Aker directly for using a 2021 study published in the Journal of Crustacean Biology as proof that krill populations are healthy.

“In it, the list of authors from a multitude of Antarctic research institutions around the globe, determined that the krill biomass is stable,” the company said.

The study, titled “Standing stock of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba Dana, 1850) (Euphausiacea) in the Southwest Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean, 2018–19,” found it was not possible to assign regional variations in krill densities to longer-term environmental trends or to fishing pressure.

Kavanagh said the study isn’t reflective of a larger body of research showing worrying trends in the Atlantic krill biomass, and Pew has said intensifying fishing pressure may lead to a future collapse of krill populations.

But Santiago, Chile-based krill consultancy Tharos slammed what it calls “several apocalyptic prophecies… anticipating a collapse of the South Antarctic krill fishery” and suggested such reports coincide with the CCAMLR annual meetings, where environmental NGOs ramp up pressure on member-nations to take more aggressive measures on conservation.

“This time, the heat has gone up to the level to ask for a full closure of the South Antarctic krill fishery, [which would] dump decades of the best science, forgetting the involvement of top-grade universities and research centers,” Tharos Managing Director Dimitri Sclabos told SeafoodSource.

Sclabos described the krill fishery as “the best-run fishery,” pointing to “fishing companies ascribing to tougher regulations, a full closure of certain fishing areas, limitations on others, tough MPAs, and so many other regulatory obligations.”

“The South Antarctic krill fishery is not a declining fishery,” he said. “While one operator had a poor 2021 fishing season, others enjoyed a good one.”

While Sclabos previously said growing Chinese demand for krill could result in a Chinese push to reduce CCAMLR’s conservation-oriented management of the fishery, he said larger vessels coming into Antarctic waters doesn’t necessarily portend disaster. Krill-fishing vessels are being built at a larger scale for economic and logistical reasons, he said.

“There is a logic behind these large operations. There are days when a big biomass has to be processed,” he said. “Operators need to have the capacity to overcome TAQ completion and competitors.” 

Skogrand, of Aker BioMarine, said another positive move for the fishery is the fact that, at this year’s CCAMLR meeting, China for the first time presented research conducted by its vessels fishing around the Antarctic Peninsula.

“This will be very valuable going forward and shows the broad commitment from CCAMLR members to collect krill biomass data towards a more evidence-based management of krill,” Skogrand said.

Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts

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