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Guest Column, May 2006

Virgina Gascon Gonzalez: Virginia was born and raised in Spain but is now based in Puerto Madryn, Patagonia (Argentina). An international lawyer by training, Virginia has worked for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) on several issues, including illegal fishing in Antarctic waters. She now works as policy advisor for the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project. virginiagascon@infovia.com.ar

Rodolfo Werner: Rodolfo holds a Ph.D. in Biology. Born in Argentina, he has devoted many years of his career to the study and conservation of Patagonian marine wildlife. He currently works for ASOC on Antarctic marine conservation issues and has been on several trips to Antarctica as a staff naturalist. Rodolfo.antarctica@gmail.com

Antarctic Krill Conservation Project – Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition

You may wonder why a group of interested individuals whose primary goal is the conservation of Antarctica may be concerned about salmon farming. The answer to that question is that salmon farms do not only have serious environmental impacts at the local level, but this industry might also have profound implications for the health of remote ecosystems such as the Antarctic marine environment.

As aquaculture expands all over the world, this industry experiences an increasing scarcity of feed supply. Fish farming currently uses around 75% of the world’s fish oil and around 40% of the world’s fishmeal. By 2010, these figures might go up to 90% and 56%, respectively. By that date, farmed salmon and trout alone may consume 620,000 tonnes of fish oil. The lack of feed supply, along with increasing concerns over contaminants found in aquaculture feeds, is leading the industry to urgently seek feeding alternatives.

The salmon farming industry is turning its attention to a small crustacean found in cold waters around Antarctica, commonly known as “Antarctic krill” (Euphausia superba). Krill has been found to be an excellent nutrient source for farmed fish and crustaceans (protein, energy, essential amino acids). Particularly, its natural pigment content, together with its high Omega 3 fatty acid concentration, makes it very attractive as an important component of the diet of farmed salmon. As a result, demand for feed products derived from Antarctic krill is rapidly increasing.

The trouble is that krill is not only a great feeding source for salmon farms. It is also a key resource for most species in the Southern Ocean. Krill is central in the Antarctic marine food web, as most of the organisms of the Antarctic marine ecosystem rely, directly or indirectly, upon the health of krill populations.

The Antarctic krill fishery has been the largest fishery in the Southern Ocean since the late 1970s. In most recent years, krill fishing vessels have been operating in coastal areas of the South West Atlantic region, almost entirely within foraging areas of land-based krill predators such as penguins and seals. There is potential for a rapid expansion of this fishery, as krill-processing technology develops and demand for krill products increases.

Norway recently introduced a factory trawler that allows krill to be pumped continuously out of the water and onto a vessel, where it can be processed immediately to prevent spoilage. This technology enables to increase catch projections up to 100,000 tonnes per year per vessel. The expansion of this fishing pattern would be very bad news for penguins, other seabirds, and marine mammals that depend on a good krill supply to feed their offspring.

Land-based krill predators such as penguins or seals are most vulnerable to krill scarcity. Scientists have found that demand for krill has begun to exceed supply in some areas of the South West Atlantic. As a result, penguins and albatrosses are already having difficulties in rearing their offspring successfully in some areas such as South Georgia.

The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was pioneer in formulating ecosystem and precautionary approaches to fisheries management. Ecosystem management of Antarctic krill is a central task to CCAMLR, and is now at a turning point. Although the needs of krill-dependent species were taken into account for the setting up of krill fishing quotas for large areas of the Southern Ocean, CCAMLR still needs to subdivide the overall catch limit into smaller marine units. This would allow distributing the fishing effort geographically, in order to take into account the relationships between krill and its predators, which occurs at a much smaller scale.

Krill populations are especially vulnerable to global warming. The Antarctic Peninsula, a key spawning and nursery area for krill, is one of the world’s fastest warming areas. The cumulative impacts of climate change and resource extraction need to be carefully considered when developing management models for krill. Thus, it is necessary to keep a strong focus on precautionary decisions, in view of the degree of uncertainty involved. If not properly managed, the Antarctic krill fishery will become another sad example of fishing down the marine food web to feed an already unsustainable aquaculture industry.

(See Claudio Sutter’s picture of a Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) on the front page of this month’s edition. Krill-dependent species such as the Gentoo penguin are most vulnerable to changes in krill availability during the breeding season.)