The former Soviet Union began fishing krill in the ocean in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1990s that a graduate student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia by the name of Luc Rainville discovered that the omega-3 fatty acids in Antarctic krill were readily absorbed by the human body. This was the start of a bad story for the krill, and all other marine wildlife which are dependent on it for food and nutrition. Based on his discovery, Rainville in 2002 started a company, Neptune Biotechnologies and Bioresources, to bring krill oil to the market as a dietary supplement. Since that time Neptune has become a major krill oil producer and the krill oil industry has expanded at an incredibly rapid rate. Today, almost all major retailers sell krill oil capsules along with other omega-3 supplements.
Big players in the supply chain
Motivated by this large market potential and growing profits, an industrial supply chain required to feed the demand for krill-based supplements quickly developed. Krill fishing fleets using giant vacuum pumps that work like enormous vacuum cleaners now literally suck the krill out of oceans and into processing plants. While many people envision krill as microscopic creatures, each individual can in fact grow to 5 cm in length and live up to 11 years.
The supply chain, starting from the bottom, thus consists of the krill; the fisheries/processors; the supplement manufacturers; and the retail distribution chains. The supplement manufacturers buy krill oil from the fisheries/processors, with the biggest of these being Aker BioMarine and its main rival, Neptune. The vast majority of these companies’ highly-efficient krill fishing vessels are now competing for the same krill in the same waters. This improves, for the time being at least, the size of their ‘harvest’, while in the long run it risks the eradication of the krill.
Let’s ignore, for a moment, krill industry claims that krill products are “more effective” or have “faster absorption”. Or that they can help lessen effects of osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or cardiovascular disease, claims which are viewed with some suspicion by doctors and scientists alike. Instead, let’s first consider the sheer size of the Australian supplement market. In Australia as many as 2 out of every 3 people regularly use a supplement of some kind, creating a AUD $3.5 billion market, of which krill oil is the hottest new ‘superstar’. Krill oil is growing so fast in Australia that it has shown triple digit sales growth since 2012, making Australia today the second biggest krill market in the world at over AUD $200 million in sales in 2013.
Investing in capacity race to the bitter end
Blackmores has stepped up as the largest Krill manufacturer in Australia in recent years, providing a range of products that includes Vanilla Flavored supplements. Besides Blackmores, the other major krill supplement manufacturers in Australia are Swisse Vitamins Pty Ltd and Pharmacare Laboratories Pty. Blackmores led the market with 17% of the sales in 2013, although this could change rapidly as both major raw krill fishing companies, Aker Biomarine (krill supplier to Blackmores) and Neptune (their main competitor), have applied for multiple patents on their products in the last two years. Meanwhile supplement companies like Swisse and Pharmacare continue to diversify their krill product lines.
There is therefore a rapid capacity expansion race taking place amongst both the fisheries/processors and the supplement manufacturers to find new uses for krill oil. The only problem is that the key raw material for this capacity expansion, the tiny shrimp-like krill, is rapidly shrinking and its rate of disappearance looks set to increase exponentially.
To be fair, it’s not just the supplement suppliers who are raking in profits from the growing krill industry: Pharmacies and supermarkets are benefiting as well. Pharmacy and Supermarket chains like Chemist Warehouse, IGA, Priceline, and Coles are by far the largest sellers of these products, each carrying a full line of Blackmores krill products.
The middleman answering consumer demand
Blackmores, has crafted strong statements regarding sourcing, sustainability and environmental responsibility. Their supplier, Aker Biomarine claims to be the most sustainable krill fishery in the industry. Appearances, however, can be deceptive and these companies continue to supply a range of krill products because we, the consumers, have created a demand. However, this doesn’t have to be permanent. Stores like Whole Foods have stepped up to protect the krill population, pulling such products off their shelves in 2012 – citing environmental concerns. Other companies could follow suit, but they won’t unless we ask - so that’s what we’re going to do.
We’re beginning our first ever onshore campaign this summer with support from consumers and Whale Warriors like you across Australia. In our local Chemmarts, Pricelines, Coles, and IGAs - were asking our friends and neighbors managing these stores to help us remove Blackmores Krill products from shelves across the nation. We may not have the power to stop these fishing practices, but we have the power to change the minds of our communities, one store at a time. Join us by getting in touch with your local Sea Shepherd chapter and share your story on Facebook and Twitter!