The global growth of fish farming is driving the demand for Antarctic krill as an alternative to wild fish in fish feeds, amid the depletion of many wild fish stocks.
Independent scientists say the krill fishery could have a detrimental effect on Antarctica’s predator populations, which are also suffering from the impacts of global warming.
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay; PUNTA ARENAS, Chile; PORDENONE, Italy — A mountain of krill meal has been divided into bags and stacked in hundreds of piles that almost touch the ceiling of a huge warehouse. We are near the port of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, inside the main logistics center of Aker Biomarine, a Norwegian company that manages about 65% of the world’s Antarctic krill production.
Loads of ground Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), a shrimplike crustacean a few centimeters long, reach this warehouse after being processed on board Aker Biomarine’s vessels trawling the Southern Ocean, the high seas beyond national jurisdiction surrounding Antarctica. From this same warehouse, shipments depart each day for ports around the world.
“We have three fishing vessels operating in Antarctica, and we have one vessel that is in charge of the transport, the Antarctic Provider,” says Gian Franco Guerrieri, Aker Biomarine’s sales manager for South America. “It comes to Montevideo port every roughly 45 days, maybe 60 days.”
Almost all the bags in the warehouse are destined for the aquaculture feed industry, while a small part will become pet food. The rest of Aker Biomarine’s krill catch, minor in comparison, never comes here but instead goes to a different production center in Houston where the company makes Omega 3 pills for human use.
“Generally 80% of our catch and production on board goes to aquaculture and pets, but most of it is aquaculture,” Ragnhild Dragøy, Aker BioMarine’s vice president of product management, says. “We sell all over the world and we sell everything we produce. We have markets in Norway, in Chile, in Asia, in Australia, in the U.S.”, among other countries, she says.
In fact, our reporting reveals, aquaculture is behind a growing demand for krill, as the industry seeks new sources of protein to feed carnivorous fish and shrimp amid the depletion of many wild fish stocks. Yet the expansion of the krill fishery is raising concerns about sustainability. Krill support the marine food chain around Antarctica, as they feed on phytoplankton and transfer energy and organic matter to predator species like fish, birds, seals and whales. Fishing industry representatives express confidence that the krill is so abundant that catches can increase responsibly. However, independent scientists say both the krill and the predators that rely on them are already showing signs of stress from the fishery as well as from rapidly changing conditions due to climate change.
Fish farms looking for new ingredients
In the 1970s the Soviet Union was the first country to industrially fish Antarctic krill. After reaching an all-time peak harvest in 1982 of 528,000 metric tons (source CCAMLR), the fishery declined in the ’80s then grew again in the early 2000s, when the Norwegian company Aker ASA entered the market and South Korea expanded its activities considerably. Recently, demand for krill has spiked: Production increased from 104,000 metric tons in 2001 to a modern high of 451,000 metric tons in 2020, and is poised to continue rising.
“Why did it start going to aquaculture? It’s that we started documenting the effects that were very beneficial for the aquaculture industry,” Dragøy says. Aker BioMarine published several studies saying that, as an aquaculture-feed ingredient, krill can enhance growth and improve health, stress tolerance and fillet quality, mostly in farmed trout and salmon, but also for other marine fish and shrimp.
At the same time, the fish feed industry, frantically searching for alternative protein sources to fishmeal and fish oil from wild fish, has become increasingly interested in Antarctic krill, according to multiple aquaculture feed industry representatives consulted for this story.
“How can we reduce our dependence on marine resources while increasing the amount of farmed fish?” says Anders E. Østergaard, customer and technical advisor for BioMar, a leading fish feed company based in Denmark that uses Aker Biomarine krill in some of its products. We met Østergaard in June at a European aquaculture industry event in Pordenone, Italy. By “marine resources” he means wild fish: in 2020 16 million tons (20% of capture fisheries in marine waters) was used for reduction to fishmeal and fish oil. Reducing the dependence of aquaculture on these wild stocks was one of the meeting’s main themes.
“There will be more and more different alternative raw materials for fish feed, and that is due to the fact that we cannot rely on just a few sources of raw materials. Especially marine resources are scarce, limited,” Østergaard says.
Aquaculture is the fastest-growing sector of the food industry: according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), aquaculture output quadrupled between 1990 and 2020 to 87.5 million metric tons, and is projected to reach 106 million metric tons in 2030. In 2020 production grew just about everywhere except Africa, but especially in Chile, China and Norway, the FAO report states — the three countries leading expansion of the Antarctic krill fishery.
This growth in aquaculture collides with the overexploitation of wild fish used to produce fishmeal and oil to feed carnivorous farmed species like salmon, trout and sea bream.
“The search for new ingredients for the formulation of feed is one of the focal points of aquaculture, given that resources such as fish-based meals are more and more decreasing,” Marco Martinoli, a doctoral researcher with the Italian Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, says.
Studies by Aker BioMarine say krill meal can replace some fishmeal in feed for certain species, and enables more efficient use of other protein ingredients, such as insects or plants, by increasing the farmed fish’s intake of the feed.
According to a company presentation, Aker BioMarine sells almost half of its krill meal production for aquaculture to the salmon industry, while a third is destined for shrimp.
“Krill, Baby, Krill,” a report published in August by the Netherlands-based Changing Markets Foundation, says two of the world’s four main aquafeed companies, BioMar and Stavanger, Norway-based Skretting, add Aker BioMarine krill meal to their feeds.
Aker BioMarine’s Dragøy says the company aims to produce 43,000 metric tons for aquaculture and pet feeds. “That’s not a lot in terms of the needs of aquaculture, but it’s one of those alternative ingredients that can be part of helping the aquaculture to move away from fishmeal,” she says.
How sustainable is krill?
Krill “are consumed by all these different animals in the Antarctic, from whales, to seals, to fish, to penguins, to flying seabirds,” Nicole Bransome, an officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO that campaigns for the protection of Antarctic krill, says. “Everybody down there is relying on krill.”
According to Bransome, by eating phytoplankton, krill also play a fundamental role in the oceans’ ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. “The krill are actually like a conveyor belt, they’re bringing carbon from the atmosphere down to the depths,” she says.
The Antarctic krill fishery is managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a part of the Antarctic Treaty System, the international agreement for the management and protection of the continent since 1961.
Today 12 krill fishing vessels operate in Antarctica, belonging to seven companies with headquarters in five countries: Norway and China, by far the main producers, then Chile, South Korea and Ukraine. Almost all of these companies are part of the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK), an industry self-regulatory body based in Tasmania, Australia.
Since 1991 CCAMLR has allowed the fishery to catch up to 620,000 metric tons per year. “With that small amount the fishery is very sustainable compared with the total biomass available,” Javier Arata, ARK’s executive officer, says.
The catch limit represents about 1% of the estimated biomass of Antarctic krill in the area where the fishery operates, around 62 million metric tons. So far the fishery has never reached the overall catch limit. But during the past two decades, krill catches have been increasing, reaching 451,000 metric tons in 2020. And every year the catch does reach a more specific quota for the Antarctic Peninsula, triggering the closure of the fishery in that particular area around mid-year.
In 2000 and 2019 ARK collected data for two CCAMLR surveys to assess the krill biomass in the region — the only such surveys done to date. “The data was published in 2021 and found that the biomass hasn’t changed compared to 2000, it remains about 60 million tons, with a very similar distribution,” Arata says.
For an independent evaluation, we visited the Instituto Antártico Chileno (INACH) in Punta Arenas, Chile, in July. The city is called “the end of the world” because it is located at the southern tip of the South American continent, overlooking the Strait of Magellan. The small port is a logistical base for some of the ships that fish krill in Antarctica.
Lucas Krüger, who studies krill at INACH, said he disagrees with the industry position that the krill population is stable.
“There is this inter-annual high variability of the krill biomass, but also there is evidence that this biomass is decreasing over time, meaning that even in the periods of higher biomass, it’s lower than it was in the past,” Krüger says.
A study published in September 2022 by researchers from Universidad de Concepción and other Chilean institutes concluded that by 2100 the krill population will suffer “a marked decline” that could range “from almost 50% to near extinction,” due mainly to the impact of climate change.
“After the Arctic, the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the areas of the planet that is warming at a faster rate than any other place on Earth,” César Cárdenas, another INACH researcher, says.
According to Cárdenas, the warming is reducing the habitat for various species, including krill. “Distribution of krill has changed in the last 50, 60 years, so now it’s migrating to the South, to colder waters, and this is projected to increase in the future,” he says.
Krüger and Cárdenas say the growing krill fishery puts additional pressure on krill populations, especially near the Antarctic Peninsula. “An indirect effect of climate change is that with decreases in sea ice there is more time for the fleet to spend time in the Peninsula,” Cárdenas says, and if krill catches grow the predators that depend on krill could drop.
That may already be happening. In 2020 Krüger, Cardenas and two co-authors published a study about the Antarctic krill fishery’s effects on penguin populations. “In general, in the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula the Pygoscelis penguin populations are decreasing,” Krüger says, referring to chinstrap (P. antarcticus) and gentoo (P. papua) penguins. “The biomass of krill [there] is also suffering changes, local decreases, changes in the main distribution, so there is less krill available.”
A fishery set to increase
In June 2022 the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), a transnational body for the regulation of the Antarctic continent, met in Berlin. During this first in-person meeting since 2019, the United Kingdom delegation proposed designating Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) as a “specially protected species.”
Rodolfo Werner, a policy advisor with the Washington, D.C.-based NGO the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition who took part in the ATCM meeting, says the proposal was based on solid scientific evidence that “by 2100 most of the colonies of Emperor penguins would be gone” due to climate change and the reduction of ice.
The Chinese delegation to the meeting vetoed the proposal, and also vetoed a comprehensive plan to respond to climate change in Antarctica.
In its arguments, the delegation espoused a denialist stance toward climate change, asking for “more research” about its impact on Antarctica, Werner says. “It was very frustrating for other members to think that something that should be straightforward, as it is to protect an iconic species in Antarctica, cannot be done,” he says.
In recent years, China and Russia have repeatedly vetoed the establishment of new marine protected areas (MPAs) proposed at CCAMLR meetings. For its part, Norway has opposed the creation of new MPAs, but it also proposed one in East Antarctica, Cárdenas, who represents INACH on CCAMLR’s scientific committee, says. CCAMLR has established two MPAs in the Southern Ocean: in 2009 on the southern shelf of the South Orkney Islands and in 2016 in the Ross Sea. Three proposals for the creation of new MPAs are currently blocked. One of them, for an MPA in the western Antarctic Peninsula, a hotspot for krill fishing, has been vetoed every year since 2017.
“In general I see that China is not that keen on closing areas, and Russia the same,” Cárdenas, says. “It is a geopolitical issue, they need to leave those areas open. Even if Russia is not fishing for krill at this moment, they want to reserve their rights in the future.”
Russia has not been active in krill fishing since 2010. In February 2022 Reuters reported that the country “announced plans to invest 45 billion roubles ($604 million) in the [krill] fishery, including building five high-tonnage trawlers.”
In 2010, the Chinese government launched a strategic plan to develop krill fishing in Antarctica and since 2016 has subsidized the industry’s development. In 2022 a new vessel is slated to be added to the four already operating in Antarctica under the Chinese flag, and the country reportedly has two more vessels under construction.
In 2019 Greenpeace criticized the expansion of the krill fishery and today is part of an agreement with the industry to implement voluntary restrictions in some areas. “That delay and continued obstruction of progressive measures in CCAMLR means we are not seeing the area properly protected, which means that we cannot call the krill fishery sustainable,” Will McCallum, a Greenpeace campaigner, says. “The fact that CCAMLR annual reports don’t name the countries that are being regressive I think is a big problem.”
According to Pål Skogrand, vice president of policy and impact for Aker BioMarine, “krill [fisheries] can never expand to a big extent, there will always be a very precautionary management of the volumes of krill.”
Yet Norway is also expanding its krill fishery. Aker Biomarine introduced a new fishing vessel in 2019 and a new support vessel in 2021 and defined growth targets of up to 60% of production in its latest corporate presentation. Rimfrost, another Norwegian krill company, is set to roll out a new fishing vessel in 2022.
According to Arata of ARK, the industry is working to obtain greater fishing quotas by spearheading a new system for monitoring the krill population that will be able to identify the years and the areas with most abundance, while limiting withdrawals in other periods.
“The expectation is that with the new management system the quota may increase,” Arata says. “I truly believe that it will increase, because, as I mentioned, the krill some years is really abundant.”
“All the numbers suggest that, in order to keep healthy populations of predators, it is very unlikely that we are going to reach10 percent,” he says. “I’d venture that maybe [the quota will] just double what we have, in the good years, but there will also be years with lower catches.”