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Walk in any health food store or retail pharmacy and you’re bound to encounter the new omnipotent omega-3 supplement manufactured from krill.

krillUp to five centimeters in size, krill is the less glamorous crustacean compared to its bigger and more popular relatives, shrimp and prawn (and despite its Latin name, Euphausia superba). Krill has been used as prime material for manufacturing fish food and pet food, until a few years ago when it became the new miracle essential fatty acid supplement for humans.

Yet as soon as krill made the list of ideal-for-human-health supplement sources, environmental groups made sure that the world knew who krill is supposed to be for: other marine species, from birds to fish to penguins, seals, humpback and baleen whales.

The small crustaceans, which form the largest biomass on the planet (for now), are not just a preferred food, but the main staple for many animals and birds. This is in part due to krill’s propensity and ability to feed on phytoplankton, which is abundant in the frigid Antarctic waters.

Yet studies indicate that krill has been declining since the Antarctic became the site of intense fishing in the early 20th century. To add insult to the injury, the continuous melting of the Antarctic sheet caused by global warming, as well as the increased concentration of carbon dioxide (which affects the hatching of eggs and developing of krill larvae) could make the Antarctic unsuitable for krill to exist in the future.

A Northern krill (Meganyctiphanes norvegica). (Photo Credit: Øystein Paulsen - MAR-ECO)

A Northern krill (Meganyctiphanes norvegica). (Photo Credit: Øystein Paulsen – MAR-ECO)

In 2013, one study estimated that ocean warming reduced krill habitat by up to 20 percent. While humans are aware of climate change as a cause of population decline, marine species that depend on krill will only be more rapacious given the projected scarcity of their food source, which will further affect the reproductive abilities of the crustaceans, even despite the increased chlorophyll content spurred by ocean warming.

The good news is that species such as baleen whales have been recovering since the days on whaling and have been seen in higher numbers. The less desirable news is that populations of krill, which used to be seen in congregations of over 1000 individuals/m3, are now averaging to 100 individuals/m3, a decline that is bound to affect the recovery of numbers of baleen whales and other krill-dependent species. 

In other words, the ocean diversity in the area is projected to be greatly affected by current developments, such as fishing practices driven by human consumption and climate change consequences.

A krill swarm photographed in the Gulf of the Farallones. (Photo: Jamie Hall / NOAA)

A krill swarm photographed in the Gulf of the Farallones. (Photo: Jamie Hall / NOAA)

The argument (unsuccessful with anyone else but whalers) that whales compete with humans for seafood is not only wrong on an environmental level but ethically wrong. If history is any lesson, the intervention of humans into deciding which species are to live and which to be plucked out of their environment in order to ensure “balance” has never been anything but reason for creating severe imbalances that affect us all. Recovery processes are often slow and further affected by climate change.

As we are past the time of assessing the possibility of krill populations declining, the question is: What are we doing to ensure that the Antarctic waters will not lose the krill and the creatures that feed on them by the end of this century?

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