We all love whales, right? No, not the country (although after its exploits at Euro 2016, there is a whole lot of love for the nation too), the species.

Our love affair with the most impressive of sea mammals can be judged by the popularity of whale-watching as a holiday activity this year, with vacationers trawling to all corners of the world for a chance to see the gentle giants of the sea.

News that whales continue to be threatened, even in their own natural environment, continues to force animal-lovers to sit up and take notice. According to new research, the population of southern right whales – a species that was hunted almost to extinction during the 19th century – has grown to just 12 per cent of its original size and is likely to take another 60 years to recover fully.

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One of the things exacerbating this threat is the fishing of krill, which is a critical source of food for many whales. The worldwide popularity of omega-3 health supplements – sold online and in health food stores and supermarkets everywhere – is encouraging fisheries to catch more and more krill from the Antarctica’s Southern Ocean.

In fact, almost every animal that feeds in Antarctic waters either directly eats krill, or eats something that does – so it’s hugely important.

Krill is a tiny crustacean which forms a key part of the Antarctic ecosystem. The oil which can be extracted from krill is said to be good for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, improving joints, and boosting memory, mood and attention span. Not only is krill good for whales, but it is also food for penguins and seals. In fact, almost every animal that feeds in Antarctic waters either directly eats krill, or eats something that does – so it’s hugely important.

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However, not helped by climate-change induced melting of the Antarctic ice cap (which is wiping out krill’s ice algae food source), the population of krill has fallen by 80 per cent since the 1970s. Industrial fishing vessels commonly hoover up krill in huge numbers and it is a situation that has got the likes of Greenpeace worried.

The body that certifies sustainably-caught fish, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), is not worried however. It believes the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a legally binding international convention set up in 1982 to manage the unregulated expansion of fishing in the Southern Ocean, including the krill fishery, is good enough.

Right now, there is a catch limit of 620,000 tonnes of krill in the so-called Area 48 where most krill fishing occurs. The MSC says that even if it was all taken, that would account for just one per cent of the total estimated biomass.

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Advocates like The Pew Charitable Trusts argue that a key issue that has to be taken into account is the concentration of fisheries in areas most populated by penguins and other species, so it is not only how much is caught, but the intensity of the fishing in specific areas.

There is a growing number of MSC-certified krill fisheries in operation, each using what are claimed to be “advanced fishing methods,” such as fine mesh nets to prevent bigger fish from entering and sea lion excluder devices.

Not helped by climate-change induced melting of the Antarctic ice cap (which is wiping out krill’s ice algae food source), the population of krill has fallen by 80 per cent since the 1970s. 

Despite more scientific research pointing to the fact that people are better off getting their omega-3s in the fish form, rather than oil form, the global demand for krill oil shows no signs of easing up and that omega-3s may not be the thing we should be focusing on, between now and 2021, the global market for omega-3 products is set to jump 15.2 per cent, becoming a $7.5bn industry.

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To satisfy its burgeoning middle classes who are more interested in the health food movement, China plans to build new science and research outposts in Antarctica and will focus more resources on krill fishing.

With question marks remaining over the effectiveness of certification in securing a stable supply – and ongoing governance issues dogging the Antarctic region – krill is likely to dominate NGO campaigns and environmental activism in the coming years as the world contends with safeguarding this precious form of marine life.

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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