A majority of krill fishing companies have announced their commitment to voluntarily stop harvesting the tiny crustaceans from vast areas of the Antarctic Peninsula, including around important breeding penguin colonies.The announcement on July 9 follows years of campaigns and negotiations led by environmental groups such as Greenpeace.
“This is a bold and progressive move from these krill fishing companies, and we hope to see the remainder of the krill industry follow suit,” Frida Bengtsson, a senior oceans campaigner atGreenpeace Nordic’s Protect the Antarctic campaign, said in a statement.
Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba),tiny shrimp-like creatures that swarm in huge concentrations in the oceans, are a crucial part of the Antarctic food chain, acting as an important food source for whales, seals, albatrosses and penguins. These translucent animals are also believed to be carbon sinks: they eat microscopic plants that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then relieve themselves when they move into deeper waters, the carbon-rich excreta sinking down and taking the carbon out of circulation.
However, Antarctic krill are under threat from both climate change and growing fishing pressure, scientists and environmental activists have warned. Fishing fleets harvest krill in huge amounts for use as feed for farmed fish, or to extract oil (omega-3s) for use in health supplements. This poses a threat to the marine animals that depend on krill for food.
The companies that have pledged to stop harvesting krill from certain areas around the Antarctic Peninsula are all members of the Association of Responsible Krill harvesting companies (ARK). Together, they represent 85 percent of the krill fishing industry in the Antarctic.
“Our ongoing dialogue with ARK members, scientists and the community of environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace, is what makes additional efforts like this possible,”Cilia Holmes Indahl, director of sustainability atAker BioMarine, the largest krill fishing company in the world, told Mongabay. “We are positive that ARK’s commitment will help ensure krill as a sustainable and stable source of healthy omega-3s for the future.”
The companies have also pledged to support the creation of a network of large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic.The details of the protected areas, including no-fishing zones, will be finalized by the Commission for theConservationof Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) at a conference in Australia later this year. CCAMLR, whose members include 24 national governments and the European Union, decides on matters relating to the conservation of Antarctic marine ecosystems.
“As part of the commitment, the krill industry will now actively participate in the expert working groups developing the MPA proposals,”Will McCallum,lead campaigner for Greenpeace’s global Antarctic campaign, told Mongabay. “The MPAs will be designated in the normal process at the annual Antarctic Ocean Commission meeting in October — the proposal relating to the krill industry fishing grounds will most likely be tabled for the 2019 meeting.”
Indahl said Aker BioMarine was committed to supporting the CCAMLR’s work on establishing the MPAs. How the designation of the MPAs will likely impact the company’s operations, though, is still unclear. “At the moment, we don’t have the full picture of how this will affect our business,” she said.
The krill companies have also committed to supporting a permanent closure of identified ecologically sensitive areas from 2020, especially near penguin colonies.
“WWF welcomes the initiative by Aker BioMarine and other ARK members to voluntarily commit to protecting Antarctica and its extraordinary wildlife,” Chris Johnson, WWF Antarctica’s program lead, said in the Greenpeace statement. “A comprehensive and effective network of marine protected areas surrounding the continent — which must include no-take marine sanctuaries — is essential for safeguarding biodiversity and improving sustainable fisheries.”
Other industries like toothfish and icefish fisheries operating in the region have not made similar commitments.
“The toothfish industry is not involved in this commitment,” McCallum said. “However, comparatively it has a very small footprint in the areas being discussed. Greenpeace hopes that all industries in the region will recognise the necessity of a network of MPAs and commit to voluntary activity to support their development.”