A Krill-iant Idea! – The Powers of Industry for Conservation

By Micheil Page
Figure 1: Krill, one of the most important species in our oceans (British Antarctic Survey).

Micheil Page


Our perception of the oceans is still limited, but what we do know is predominantly focused on the larger and more iconic species like the Blue Whale or the Great White Shark. Often ignored is potentially the most crucial of them all, a tiny little shrimp we call Krill.

Krill fisheries are very active, with thousands of tonnes of catch recorded every year. However, following disputes that our fishing of krill is too intensive to allow the species to naturally recover, there has been a push by consumers to more closely monitor and protect krill populations in Antarctica, where the ecosystem balance is particularly at risk. Most recently, the krill fishing industry spoke up and issued their support for one plan that was being argued as a solution: the establishment of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Ross Sea and a comprehensive network of MPAs around the Antarctic. Of all the advocates and parties to policy making, industries seem the least likely to support conservation efforts explicitly through imposing constraints on their practices that can go beyond their ideal mechanisms, which begs the question: Who are the various hands in play for policy around areas of conservation, and how does it work?

The Life and Times of Krill

The krill fishing industry emerged in the 1970s to fit the growing demand for resources that spiked towards the end of the 20th century. Of the 31 different species of krill, the most widely fished and consumed is the Antarctic Krill (Euphausia superba), followed by the Pacific Krill (E. pacifica) and the Northern Krill (Meganyctiphanes norvegica). Today, it is a multi-million-dollar industry, with a total permitted catch of 5.6 million tonnes annually – and that is solely representative of the Southern Atlantic. Krill play a vital role in two ways, ecologically and anthropogenically.

Krill and the Antarctic Ecosystem

Ecologically, krill are the principal consumers at the bottom of the food chain. This may make them sound marginal, but in fact they are one of the keys to the Antarctic ecosystem survival. They are filter-feeders, meaning that they filter the water for tiny algae and phytoplankton that bloom in the oceans. They are one of the few species of their size and biomass that can do this, making them a fundamental source of energy for other species that cannot consume phytoplankton (Nicol, 2018). The Antarctic food web can be used to trace the bottom energy source of phytoplankton all the way up to the dominant species like whales and seals.

Anthropogenically, krill has been used in multiple ways for decades. Primarily, it is used in aquaculture as a feed for farmed species of fish, most notably for salmon as its consumption can enhance the pigmentation of the fish. The rest of its consumption is divided across use in recreational and industrial fishing, aquariums, and a fraction is even consumed by humans. Within human consumption, krill has multiple uses in the pharmaceutical industry with hundreds of patents.

Thus, the tiny, humble krill plays a much larger role than at first glance. However, it is with this use that our management of the species has been put at risk.

The Krill Fishing Industry

There is a fundamental hole in the potential sustainability of krill fishing, but the size of the hole differs between theory and reality. Krill are tiny – 6 centimetres at most – which is just larger than an average paper clip, and so the nets used by fishing vessels must have a very fine mesh. Though the finer mesh may make krill fishing an easier process, it has a very serious consequence. If krill are one of the smallest species in the oceans, it is hard to believe that there will be no bycatch. Bycatch is already a serious issue in the management of our oceans, with harmful fishing practices such as long-lining and trawling already pushing several species to and beyond critically endangered status.

Additionally, the Antarctic Krill populations have been significantly depleted since they began being regulated in the 1980s. 1982 saw the largest harvest of krill, a whopping 528,000 tonnes, of which 93% was harvested by the former Soviet Union (Atkinson, et al., 2009). Alarmed by this massive increase in catch, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was implemented under the remit of the Antarctic Treaty System. The convention was implemented in the hopes to regulate the Antarctic fishery and achieve long-term sustainability of the populations of Antarctic krill and other species. The CCAMLR has an annual total allowable catch of 5.6 million tonnes, which is criticised by advocates who say that it should be far lower. However, the actual recorded production does not reach that threshold (Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, 1991). Yet the science and data around the sustainability of krill populations is still unclear and will require further information before any more constraints of concessions are offered in the region.


Source: FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture

The graph above indicates the total recorded harvest of Antarctic krill in tonnes since data became available. It shows how the total maximum production of krill peaked in 1982 at over 500,000 tonnes and dropped upon the ratification of the CCAMLR. The second drop occurred at the fall of the USSR, which was the largest producer of krill up until its collapse. Since then, krill production has been steadily increasing and is likely to reach a second peak without regulation, particularly as demand to meet the needs of a growing human population increases (Agnew, 2013).

Threats and Futures

The threats to krill populations in the Antarctic go beyond just unsustainable fishing practices; they are also at risk because of various changes to their ecosystem that could be attributed to climate change. It has been shown that during their juvenile phase, krill require pack ice to survive as it gives them a greater chance of evading predators. Pack ice has been declining every consecutive year, thereby reducing the likelihood that krill will live until adulthood.

Additionally, in open and unmonitored waters, there is a higher risk of illegal, unmonitored, and unregulated (IUU fishing). IUU fishing is estimated to account for 30% of world fishery catch, which also often consists of unsustainable fishing practices and can have detrimental effects on ecosystems and species populations. Although the scale of IUU fishing and its relationship with krill is unclear, it is one of the most detrimental aspects of our mismanagement of the world’s oceans and thus needs to be examined in greater detail in the Antarctic.

Most recently, however, we have witnessed the desires of civil society and industry converge in support of the establishment of not just the largest marine reserve in the world, but potentially the largest protected area in history. In 2016, the countries party to the Antarctic Treaty agreed on the establishment of an MPA around the Ross Sea (Nicol, 2018), proving that international cooperation for protected areas in international waters is possible. Despite the fact that ideas for larger protected areas in the Antarctic have been repeatedly blocked, the most recent incident occurring in 2017, the EU has continued to push forward with the plan for an MPA that surrounds the Antarctic.

This latest instance could potentially have the momentum to succeed, as not only has the proposal received backing from multiple governments and large civil society groups such as Greenpeace, but it also now has the support of krill fishing companies that account for 85% of activity (Taylor, 2018), including Aker BioMarine, the largest krill fishing company in the world (Aker BioMarine, 2018). Not only have they announced their support for the proposed project, but they have announced a ‘voluntary permanent stop’ to activity in the proposed areas. The proposal is to be discussed at the CCAMLR in October, but in the lead up it is interesting to see who else will support the plan.

Who influences Policy?

The intersection of civil society, government, and industry in this case highlights the question as to who play a part in the policymaking process. The term ‘policymakers’ is a broad and unclear term, often outlining a party that has the platform and influence to shape policy to achieve a certain goal.

But policymakers can emerge in many different ways. Though it is the politicians that often implement policy through legislation, and thus have the final say, the policy making process is often influenced by other actors that have an interest in the agenda at hand. This often can include industries, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, etc.; it is largely determined by the agenda and the accessibility of the policy making process (Hallsworth, et al., 2011).

One of the problems with the policy making process, however, is that it is often perceived as separate from the public or the individual person. Policy making has been seen as a process conducted by the higher echelons of society, be they the political, intellectual, or economic elite. This often can result in the mentality that governments and institutions have separate motives or are sacrificing the views of individuals in order to secure support elsewhere. Thus, the case of the Antarctic Marine Sanctuary becomes an interesting point of convergence where politics [national governments], industry [krill fishery companies] and society [Greenpeace and their signatories] are all supporting the same policy.

Policy for Conservation

The policy making process is often perceived as being for the growth of industry and securing of wellbeing, rather than for the sustainable protection of nature, but this could be because the inclusion of nature in policy making did not begin until the late-1800s in the US.

Conservation first entered the agenda towards the end of the 19th century, as one of the changes that people sought to embrace in the United States at the time. The appreciation of natural beauty and biodiversity saw the establishment of over 100 protected areas, mainly at the hands of President Theodore Roosevelt (Martin-Lopez, et al., 2009). Eight of these reserves were even established in Alaska – a move that began the first instances of conservation and protection of the Polar Regions.

The next instance of policy to protect and manage the Polar Regions did not occur until 1959, when the Antarctic Treaty was signed. The Antarctic Treaty marked the start of global cooperation in the Antarctic – however, not for conservation. The treaty’s emphasis has been placed on the prohibition of military and nuclear activity in the region, and stresses that the only activity permitted will be scientific and should encapsulate international cooperation. Thus, the region remained a point of international interest, but did not originate with motives for conservation.

The conservation of the Antarctic was sufficiently introduced in 1991, with the Protocol on Environmental Protection under the Antarctic Treaty. This Protocol effectively established the Antarctic as a nature reserve by declaring support for the research and protection of Antarctic flora and fauna and prohibiting resource extraction.

The major flaw with the treaty is that it does not extend further than the continental shelf. The continental shelf only extends a few nautical miles beyond the edge of the Antarctic. Beyond the shelf, the lack of regulation allows for more open and lax fishing practices, greater risk of illegal dumping of bycatch and polluting materials, and more activities that all converge into the nexus of the mismanagement of our world’s oceans.

This is where the establishment of a marine sanctuary around the Antarctic finds its importance. If the established MPA extends just a few hundred nautical miles beyond the Antarctic continental shelf, then some of the highest catch areas of Antarctic Krill that are at risk will be protected. This would theoretically not jeopardise the industry as well, as despite the lesser biomass, there are other krill species found across the world that could help to offset a reduction in available Antarctic Krill. Additionally, this could create an initial standard for the proper management of the world’s oceans and the sustainable extraction of resources. If left unprotected, we could see the loss of more than just the ice caps in Antarctica.


Figure 2: The current state of MPAs in the Southern Ocean (Roura, 2017)

Yet, there is a key difference in this aspect of conservation. Whilst historically conservation was designed around the protection of areas of natural beauty, it then was adapted to encapsulate the dimension of extraction and use of resources (Cain & Kaiser, 2016). This creates a different dimension of policy, where the interests of industries and consumers have more weight against the environment that also needs to be considered when making policy. However achieving a balance between the interests of humans and nature does not have to be an obstacle.

Future Implications

As aforementioned, the verdict of this proposal will not be decided until the CCAMLR conference in October. However, should it succeed, it may offer a glimmer of hope in the field of international cooperation.

The Antarctic is a region of vital importance for global climate regulation, biodiversity and productivity. Though this paper has looked largely at krill as a species and the industry that is supporting the proposal, it goes far beyond the tiny crustacean. The largest marine sanctuary in the world could have grand implications, not just for the management of our oceans but the management of our world’s natural resources as a whole, proving that there is the potential to protect and sustainably manage the planet. More so, it could even further reify the idea that international cooperation for the good of the environment is possible, beyond just the Montreal Protocol. A collaborative effort between the regulatory authorities, civil society and industry have the potential to adopt policy that could be beneficial for all parties involved, from the small krill to the large trawler.

Policy making is a messy process, this is true, but it does not have to be. Policy making for protected areas, from its conception, has shown that policy can balance both the interests of the people and industry as well as the interests of the environment. In the case of krill, there are vast uncertainties, but there remains the possibility that this could unfold positively.


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Micheil Page is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is currently reading an MSc in Global Energy and Climate Policy at SOAS, University of London, specialising in Arctic governance and policy. He also holds a BA in Development Studies and Geography, also from SOAS, where his focus was on sustainable development. During his time at SOAS, Micheil has been actively engaged in multiple environmental projects. He is Co-Director of UniSolar, the UK’s first student-led community energy enterprise, which in 2016 successfully crowdfunded for the installation of solar panels on the roof of SOAS and now focuses on expanding into projects at other universities across the UK. Micheil also served as the Student Union’s Environment Officer, where he focused on promoting awareness of various environmental issues and reducing the use of single-use plastic water bottles across the university. Micheil also works in the Energy and Climate Division of Agora. His interests and publications have focused on the various intricacies of British environmental policy, from coal to sustainable ocean management.
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