Oceans Inc #2: Krilling for Oil

Conservationists are sounding the alarm over the international race to exploit the Antarctic's krill swarms.

Welcome to Green Echoes, a newsletter from the Environmental Reporting Collective that highlights key investigative stories, data sources, funding, reporting and training opportunities and our projects from across Asia.

Oceans Inc

What makes us unique is that we’re a collective that works collaboratively, with newsrooms and freelancers, across borders. More than a dozen newsrooms worked on Oceans Inc with us over the last year, and many of them are publishing their one features. Here’s one from partner newsroom R.AGE, in Malaysia.

And Indonesia’s Tempo published their own investigation into how fishers in the contested waters of the Natuna Sea are being impacted by politics.

A reminder: All Oceans Inc content is available to be translated, adapted, and republished for free under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC 4.0). If you’re interested, respond to this email.

This week we’re proud to announce our second investigation in the Oceans Inc series: Krilling for Oil. It focuses on the booming demand for krill fish, used mainly for aquaculture, but also fish oil. While the fishery is touted as sustainable, there are growing concerns about overfishing especially along the threatened Antarctic coast, a region heavily impacted by climate change.

Here are some excerpts from this story.

Looking for resources and opportunities? Scroll down – they’re at the bottom.

Krilling for Oil

For several months a year, more than a dozen international ships travel long and treacherous journeys to reach Antarctica. Here, they take part in what is touted as one of the most sustainable seafood harvesting operations in the world — the Antarctic krill fishery.

The vessels vacuum up swarms of Antarctic krill — over a thousand tonnes a day on some ships — which are then processed into krill oil pills, one of the latest products on the dietary supplement market.

With krill being the most abundant species on earth, bearing an estimated population of 400 million tonnes in the Antarctic alone, it’s hard to imagine that fishing these beady-eyed crustaceans could make a dent in the vast Antarctic ecosystem.

And yet, that’s exactly what conservationists are sounding the alarm about.

As part of its collaborative investigation on IUU fishing, the Environmental Reporting Collective found that over the past year, powerful nations like Russia and China, as well as a billionaire-owned Norwegian company, are stepping up their presence in the Southern Ocean. As the climate continues to warm rapidly, these players are all hoping to stake their claim in the supposedly sustainable krill rush.

“It's pretty worrisome when you've got fisheries exploring these ‘unexploited’ areas or discovering large stocks of fish. This really should raise eyebrows because what’s really driving that expansion? Krill oil is obviously one factor,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia.

On the other hand, the vessels that harvest krill are known to have responsible fishing practices. They actively report their locations and diligently count the amount of krill that is harvested. More importantly, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the international organisation managing the Antarctic krill fishery, insists that these practices cause no disruption to the surrounding marine ecosystem.

Though, with an upcoming meeting of the nations involved to decide on new protections that could safeguard Antarctic krill – and by extension the penguins, whales, and seals that depend on krill as a food source – the conservation of one the world’s final untapped frontiers is at stake.

Krill vs fish oil industry

At the size of a paper clip, Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) is mostly used for aquaculture, and as feed for pets and livestock. In recent years, however, its oil has become increasingly popular as a dietary supplement due to its superior health benefits compared to fish oil.

Antarctic krill oil products are touted to be more effective in delivering omega-3 fatty acids to the bloodstream. This is linked to many benefits, primarily improved heart and brain health. The US military even considered making it a part of the diet for its troops.

With concerns growing over overfishing and the quality of fish oil supply chains, producers also regularly promote the sustainability and purity of their krill products, positioning them as a premium alternative. One bottle sold on Amazon reads: “Our krill is sustainably harvested from pristine waters and processed under ideal conditions to ensure maximum nutrient quality.”

Antarctic krill oil generally costs consumers 3-4 times more than regular fish oil, and yet market research projects that the industry will have an annual compound growth rate of over 13% between now and 2023.

Diminishing fish stock may be one of the factors behind this. Currently, almost one-fifth of the world’s total catch of wild fish is processed into fish oil and fishmeal (an ingredient mostly used to feed farm animals). Most supply chains for these industries are extremely non-transparent, making it almost impossible to tell where and how the fish was caught. Additionally, research into industry practices shows high levels of exploitation and unregulated practices. 

In Peru, for example, almost 30% of fish oil exports are linked to overfishing and underreported catches of juvenile anchovies, as well as critical health and safety violations of the fisheries during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Other fisheries, including in India and Vietnam, have also shown irresponsible and harmful illegal, unreported and unregulated habits, implicating retailers from across Europe and North America. 

In contrast, the supply chain of Antarctic krill is more transparent and regulated.

Those within the industry say that the overall catch of krill in the Southern Ocean is very low. Less than 1% of the total amount of krill available is harvested annually. 

While this number generally remains true, there is a complex web of competing international actors, questionable management, signs of overfishing, and a worrying lack of data behind the figures.

“Sustainability has more to do with how the fishery is being managed, and depends on the amount of krill that has been extracted, and the location,” said Rodolfo Werner, senior advisor for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. 

“In the end, it’s not how much krill you extract, but when and where. Those are elements that are important to keep in mind.”

Read the entire investigation into the krill fishing industry and its effects on on biodiversity, climate, and more.


Upcoming Oceans Inc Stories

We’re releasing five different investigative pieces over the next month. Here’s what’s coming up.

  • Sep 13 – Worked to Death – An investigation into one of China's largest fishing companies.

  • Sep 20 – Observational Hazards – A fishery observer's job is to monitor fishing vessels for illegal activity. But they keep disappearing at sea.

  • Sep 27 – Transshipment – It might seem like a sensible logistics exercise, but in reality, transshipment enables destructive IUU fishing across the world.

Opportunities and Trainings

Inspired by Oceans Inc to dig into Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing? The 2021 Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange, taking place on Sept 8-9, is focused on IUU fishing, and they’re offering free passes for journalists. Register here.

The Institute for Carbon Renewal is hosting the first Annual Conference on Carbon Removal policy from Sept 21-22. Details here.

For science journalists: the Spark Grant Initiative seeks to provide funding for work that strengthens science journalism locally while also benefiting the worldwide community, with projects eligible for up to $20,000 in grants. Details here, and applications are due 30 Oct.

Stay safe and healthy,

Nithin Coca

The Environmental Reporting Collective is a growing network of journalists and newsrooms from over a dozen countries, all dedicated to investigating environmental crimes collaboratively.

To learn more about our work, check out our website, Investigative.Earth, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.