China plans to vastly increase its yearly fishing of Antarctic krill. The country currently harvests about 32,000 metric tons of krill annually from Antarctica’s waters, topped by only Norway and South Korea. Under China’s plans, detailed in a March 4 story in the state-run China Daily, the world’s most populous country would increase those catches 30 to 60 times, harvesting up to 2 million metric tons yearly. That’s about seven times the Antarctic krill currently harvested by all nations annually.
Krill are small marine arthropods belonging to the subphylum Crustacea (class Malacostraca that includes crabs, lobsters, shrimp etc.) and have a nearly global distribution. Worldwide, huge swarms of these zooplankton act as a food source for whales, penguins and other marine animals. Antarctic krill are about 2 inches long but incredibly abundant, so much so that scientists believe that the total weight of Antarctic krill is greater than the cumulative weight of any other animal species. Krill has been harvested as aquaculture feed and fish bait since at least the 19th century; other uses include livestock, pet foods and omega-3 dietary supplements. Norway is currently the world’s largest harvester of Antarctic krill, largely to supply the supplements industry with omega-3 fatty acids.
“We will increase our investment in the Antarctic area in terms of krill fishing,” said Liu Shenli, chairman of the China National Agricultural Development Group and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
“Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”
“The Antarctic could provide almost 100 million metric tons of krill products annually, equal to the world’s current fishing output, and China should aim to harvest one to two million tons,” Liu said.
Dr. Rodolfo Werner, a marine scientist who specialises in the study and conservation of the Patagonian Sea, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica, said he doubts China can ramp up its catches to that level. But the fact that China has announced such ambitious plans worries him, partly because other countries might follow suit. “I’m concerned – very concerned,” said Werner. “If they invest big money in their fishing fleets, it will push the system to relax the current (Antarctic) catch limits.”
Despite the vast abundance of Antarctic krill, many conservationists are concerned that the Antarctic’s food chain is already being harmed by industrial krill fishing. Populations of Adélie and chinstrap penguins have declined more than 50 percent in the West Antarctic Peninsula in the last 30 years, and at least one study has linked the decline to a reduction in krill 1.
In 1982, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) came into force, as part of the Antarctic Treaty System. The CCAMLR was originally signed by fifteen states; as of 2004 it had 24 members. Its purpose is to regulate the fishery in the Southern Ocean to ensure a long-term sustainable development and to prevent overfishing. It was established in large part due to concerns that an increase in krill catches in the Southern Ocean could have a serious impact on populations of other marine life which are dependent upon krill for food. For China’s proposed increase in krill harvest to be made possible, the country would have to gain approval from the CCAMLR.