Pulling the Rug Out From Under Antarctic Ecosystems
Every eco-system exists within a fragile and intricate web of life that ensures the survival of all the members of that community. In the Antarctic, small shrimp-like organisms called krill, each one weighing no more than a paper clip, play a critical role in the food chain of the Southern Ocean.
The Antarctic Krill Conservation Project (AKCP) was recently launched by Pew Charitable Trusts, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, and the National Environmental Trust, with the objective of helping to prevent the collapse of krill fisheries in the Southern Ocean. This goal is ambitious, especially as new technology allows krill fishing fleets to use factory trawlers with huge pumps working 24 hours a day to literally vacuum the krill out of the water, aspirating up to 120,000 metric tons in one season.
Demand for krill is increasing at a fast pace as the aquaculture industry searches for solutions to sustain its rapid growth. According to the AKCP website, fish farming already uses 75 percent of the world's fish oil and 40 percent of its fish meal, with these numbers promising to go up over the next decade.
The consequences of failing to ensure the sustainability of these tiny organisms could be dire for krill's natural predators. Penguins, seals, and whales are now finding themselves obligated to compete for food with the industrialized fishing fleets that increasingly trawl in coves and near-shore waters, close to rookeries and feeding grounds.
It is difficult to conceive of demand for this resource exceeding supply. The AKCP reports that krill are one of the world's most abundant multi-celled animals and collectively thought to be one of the largest aggregations of marine life on the planet. Yet scientists now warn that there is potential for localized depletion of this resource to an extent that could seriously impact the entire southern marine ecosystem.
In his new film, "An Inconvenient Truth", Al Gore warns us about the impact of old habits combined with new technologies. I believe that this is as true for fisheries as it is for climate change. Today, we literally have the ability to empty the ocean of life and we are proving this to be a serious concern as fisheries yields continue to decline all over the world. Whether krill, Chilean Sea Bass, sharks or the Peruvian Anchoveta, we must be more aware of our habits as consumers and citizens of a world filled with creatures that require our protection- for their intrinsic value as well as for their role in the ecosystems they inhabit that provide resources to meet the needs of a growing and hungry human population.