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Look who’s stealing food from Antarctic penguins and whales

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

Blackmore's EcokrillBlackmores 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!

How Certification Misleads and Fails in Evaluating the Delicate Krill Balance

Krill fishing is disputed; let there be no doubt about that. While overfishing is diminishing krill populations drastically, krill are also being destroyed by climate change in a classic “scissors effect”. The situation is extremely urgent because, in addition to being the building blocks of the Antarctic food chain, krill also sequester of enormous quantities carbon dioxide, thus acting to mitigate climate change.

The krill ecosystem involves very complex relationships between krill, algae, carbon dioxide, melting ice and acidification. We freely admit that these relationships and their implications are not fully understood at this time. We therefore demand that the most sensible and intelligent action be taken at the present time, which is to strictly limit all krill fishing until we understand these threats more fully. This is what we seek to achieve.

False legitimacy

Unfortunately, krill fishing has gained some appearance of legitimacy due to marine certification schemes and labels that erroneously claim to be protecting the krill. To calm concerns about declining krill stocks, bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Friend of the Sea (FOS), and CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) have tried to qualify and quantify safe fishing of krill. Each scheme fails, to various degrees, to provide full and comprehensive protection of krill and the Antarctic.

The MSC and FOS certification systems have been criticised by numerous leading environmental organisations on several occasions. This is because those certifications programs do not seriously evaluate the effect of climate change on future krill populations and also because of systemic deficiencies in the programs.

Melting ice, CO2 acidification killing the krill

Antarctic krill get their own nutrition from ice-algae growing on the bottom side of Antarctic ice. As global warming melts ice cover, the krill have less food, contributing in part to the alarming 80% drop in krill population since the 1970s. As Antarctic ice will undoubtedly continue to disappear, krill face a food shortage which will have impacts all the way up the food chain.

A further dramatic and worrying event is CO2 acidification of the world’s oceans, which scientists say is the worst in at least the past 300 million years. Acidification negatively affects the krill’s embryonic development, which is very worrying since krill eggs hatch at ocean depths where CO2 and acidification levels are the highest in history.

Many Antarctic species depend on one food source – krill. They not only function as food for whales, penguins, seals and seabirds, but because of all the CO2 rich algae they consume, they are also enormously important carbon binders that help mitigate global warming.

melting iceberg

Downward spiral could accelerate, rapidly

The Antarctic is very delicately-balanced, with the krill at the very heart of this interrelated ecosystem. They serve both as food for larger animals and CO2 sinks based on their consumption of algae. Their disappearance could very easily accelerate in a downward spiral, with catastrophic effects. We’re taking a big risk upsetting such a delicate system for fish food and omega-3 supplements for humans.

In an attempt by companies, which have a clear financial motivation, to justify this controversial large-scale fishing of krill, some fisheries have applied for and gained certifications from MSC and FOS. At the present time Aker Biomarine AS, based in Norway, is the only company krill-certified by MSC. But they will likely be followed by Olympic Seafood who in September 2014 entered the assessment for certification. Olympic Seafood is one of the companies certified by FOS.

The fact is that neither MSC nor FOS certifications take systematic and thorough consideration of the impact of climate change on krill (or any other fishery). The same goes for CCAMLR, the regulative body with the ungrateful task of protecting the Antarctic and safeguarding “rational use” of marine living resources. In fact, in CCAMLR’s convention, “rational use” is included in the term “conservation”, making the two potentially conflicting aims impossible to separate.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

MSCIn 1996 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever formed MSC as a joint venture, with the stated aim to halt the decline in the viability of global fisheries and incentivize sustainable fishing. In 2000 MSC granted fisheries certification for the first time, and by 2012 183 fisheries were MSC certified.

Troubles and concerns about MSC were raised as soon as it was created, and the objections have grown stronger as the number of certifications has boomed. A report published in 2012 examined seafood stocks that were certified by MSC and FOS and found 31% of MSC-certified were overfished and subject to continuing overfishing.

MSC’s obvious conflict of interest threatens objectivity

Scientists and environmental groups have criticized MSC on issues of technical stringency and nebulous regulatory language, as well as risks of score inflation. Under the rules, a fishery applying for certification hires an accredited certifier to do an assessment that MSC uses to decide whether to grant certification. The fishery’s cost for a full assessment varies between $15,000-150,000.

Strangely, MSC allows the obvious conflict of interest that arises when fisheries can choose a certifier that they hope will give a positive result, since such a positive result almost guarantees that the certifier will get future work and revenue for ongoing annual monitoring.

In 2010 Aker Biomarine became the first krill harvester to get certification from MSC in a decision which disregarded strong objections from numerous environmental organizations including, among others, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Antarctic & Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC).

ASOC criticized, among other things, the lack of consideration given to climate change when estimating the krill biomass and future trajectories of krill yield. Pew Environmental Group, the conservation arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts, criticized the certification on similar grounds. Gerald Leape, director of Pew's Antarctic Krill Conservation Project (AKCP) reacted critically by saying: ”In its decision, the MSC ignored irrefutable evidence put forward by numerous stakeholders including prominent Antarctic scientists, climate change and forage fishery experts, and environmental groups”.

Other environmental groups have rejected any possible certification of any krill fishery, since this is most obviously contrary to the MSC’s stated guiding principles. Others objected that Aker’s application cannot be viewed in isolation but must be considered in the context of the fishery as a whole.

Another systemic critique of MSC is based on FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which among other things, requires that ”states should encourage the use of fish for human consumption …” MSC’s Principle 3 , in turn, states that fisheries must respect local, national and international laws and standards. Putting these two statements together, while considering the fact that most of the krill catch is turned into fishmeal and dietary supplements, means that krill fishery violates FAO’s Code of Conduct.

FOS is no friend

FOSFriend of the Sea (FOS), a group founded in 2006, has also been criticized by a variety of environmental organizations and scientists. A 2012 study that examined seafood stocks certified by MSC and FOS found that 19% of FOS-certified were overfished and subject to on-going overfishing, and thus did not deserve any label which claimed otherwise. FOS is also been criticized for lack of professionalism and transparency, poor stakeholder involvement and weak language used in the criteria.

CCAMLR has changed for the worse

CCAMLRTo a lesser extent, but equally concerning, is the fact that the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has become ineffective. Established in 1982 to respond to increasing commercial interest in Antarctic krill, CCAMLR is an international commission with 24 member countries and the EU. All of the krill fishing nations are members of CCAMLR. The decision process is based on consensus, which gives each one of the members the opportunity to veto any decision, and ultimately makes serious environmental progress difficult.

CCAMLR was for many years held as a leader in marine resource management. However in the last three years the organization has been heavily criticized as failing to protect the Southern Ocean. For example in 2012 CCAMLR joined the international movement to develop a global network of marine protected areas (MPAs). However, CCAMLR failed to reach consensus on a proposal to create the world’s largest network of MPAs because the proposition to establish MPAs in the Southern Ocean has been vetoed several times over the past three years by various fishing nations. This has raised concerns that CCAMLR has abandoned its original conservation mission in favour of commercial fishing interests. CCAMLR has also been criticized for not taking proper consideration of climate change in their decision making process.

Better understanding needed before we can certify anything

As mentioned at the top of this report, the bottom line is that labels and certification systems are too simple to realistically evaluate the very complex interrelations between krill, the marine food chain and climate change. The obvious and most rational course of action for the moment is to hold off on decimating further the critically important krill population. This course of action must be a priority for all serious governments, fisheries and consumers to immediately put into effect, before it’s too late.

Operation Krill

Major corporations are threatening whales by literally taking the food right out of their mouths.

We can stop them!

Around the world, growing demand for farmed fish and omega-3 health supplements is coming at a hidden cost – the Antarctic, one of the last unspoiled oceans on the planet. In a quest to exploit the Antarctic krill as a raw material input into both fish farming and omega-3 supplements, this pristine environment and its whales, penguins, seals and birds are dangerously threatened. After years of protecting whales and seals around the world, we can’t allow their main food source to be threatened as well. Join us for Operation Krill on the high seas, or in your community today.

With whaling on the decline, thanks to the work by Sea Shepherd volunteers and donors like you, the next avenue to continue to fight for whale’s survival is to protect their main food source, Krill.

Dietary Supplement companies (and their suppliers) are now depleting a species already feeling some of the worst effects of climate change, and quite literally taking the food right out of the mouths of whales (as well as penguins, seals, fish, etc.). That’s why we are now taking the fight to the mainland - as we begin to confront the Supplement Supply companies every day at supermarkets and chemists across Australia.

Humpback whales

What are Krill and Why Defend Them?

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is a species of krill found in the Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean. It is a small, swimming crustacean that lives in large schools, called swarms, sometimes reaching densities of 10,000-30,000 individual animals per cubic metre. It feeds directly on small phytoplankton, which grow on the underside of the Antarctic ice sheet. While many people envision krill as microscopic creatures, each individual can in fact grow to 5 cm in length, weigh up to 2 grams and live for 11 years. They are a key species in the Antarctic ecosystem and is, in terms of biomass, probably the most abundant animal species on the planet.

After depleting many of the world’s oceans of their fish, companies are now going after what’s left at the bottom of the food chain – the tiny krill at the very heart of the Antarctic ecosystem. Using giant factory-ships, seafood companies are vacuuming the oceans clean by sucking up the krill that so many other marine creatures depend on.

Simultaneously, Antarctic ice is melting due to climate change, depleting the krill’s ice algae food source. The end result is that since the 1970s, the krill population has already dropped by 80%. Furthermore, recent scientific research now shows that Antarctic penguin populations, which depend on krill, have collapsed by 50% in studied colonies over the last 30 years. With climate change accelerating, pressure will relentlessly increase on this delicate ecosystem.

The krill fishing vessels in the Antarctic Ocean have a six-month season, beginning in February of each year. These so called “ships”, which are really floating industrial factories, can exceed 120 meters in length. They vacuum the ocean for krill and then process it onboard. Today the capacity of these fleets to harvest Antarctica’s “pink gold” krill is exploding, with the total hold capacity of licensed ships rising 44% in just the last two years.

The Southern Ocean is a wasp-waist ecosystem, meaning there are many species depending on one food source – krill. The vast schools of krill not only function as food for whales, penguins, seals and seabirds, but they are also huge carbon sinks that help mitigate global warming. No one can say exactly how vast these schools of krill actually are; estimations vary widely depending on which method is used. What we do know thanks to presentations by Antarctic experts to the United Nations is that global warming will continue, and that krill habitats will thus shrink.


The krill killers are ignoring the facts . . . but maybe the market won’t

Krill fishing companies argue international catch limits are far too low. Today they are actually working hard to take even more krill in their “harvest”. China clearly intends to boost its krill harvest and they are not alone in their quest to expand fisheries in the Antarctic as numerous other countries and companies are hoping to do the same.

This exploitation is ultimately dependent on market demand for krill-based products. Krill is used as fish food in aquaculture and as an omega-3 supplement for human nutrition; unfortunately both these markets are expected to grow sharply in coming years according to market researchers at Reuters. The route to the market for omega-3 supplements is presently provided by a number of major dietary supplement companies, including Blackmores, Swisse, MegaRed, PharmaCare and others.

Plundering krill in an already-threatened ecosystem is extremely reckless, to say the least. With your help and support, we can together make these Australian dietary supplement companies, and the Australian people in general, aware of this threat on the delicate Southern Ocean ecosystem.

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