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.
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.
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)
In 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
Friend 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
To 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.