Antarctic krill, a tiny crustacean, is key to the food chain of the Antarctic ecosystem, sustaining a wide variety of animals, from birds like albatrosses and penguins; fish and cephalopods like squid; and mammals like whales, dolphins, sea lions, and elephant seals. Krill is essential for all of their livelihoods.
However, food companies in China are making krill fashionable and promoting its massive consumption, claiming miraculous health benefits through national advertising campaigns. As such, Chinese fishing fleets stationed in the southern and Antarctic waters of Chile and Argentina are catching more and more tons of the key resource daily, wreaking havoc with their indiscriminate looting and causing serious danger to its sustainability.
“In 2022 the permits to fish for krill in the area were for 10 boats and in 2023 they increased to 14,” Milko Schvartzman, a specialist in marine conservation and illegal fishing monitoring and a member of Argentina’s environmental organization Círculos de Políticas Ambientales, told Diálogo on September 29. “That is to say, China increased the capture of marine resources and this means increased pressure on krill.”
The small crustacean maintains the balance of the ecosystem of the seas and many of these species that feed in sub-Antarctic or Antarctic waters eventually migrate to the coasts of the Southern Cone. Chinese fishing fleets’ large catches in the southern and Antarctic areas of Chile and Argentina jeopardize krill’s subsistence and that of the animals that depend on it.
China’s commercial appetite is compounded by the relentless global warming that threatens species. The environmental impact in Antarctica can be seen in the shrinking sea ice and the disappearance of the unicellular algae that grow attached to it and on which the krill feed —a breaking food chain.
“The Antarctic Peninsula became one of the places most affected by global warming in the last three decades,” Argentine biologist Rodolfo Werner told Argentina’s Channel 26 on August 11. “Less ice, less algae, less krill.”
However, Chinese fishing companies continue to advertise the benefits of the crustacean on a massive scale, while more discreetly labeling Antarctic krill as a “gold mine” for their national fishing economy. China’s provincial governments also promote its processing as a high-value industry, U.S.-based seafood industry news site Seafood Source reported.
For example, the municipal government of Qingdao, in eastern China, set ambitious targets to develop krill production and related biotechnology industries in the region. The Qingdao-based Function Marine Technology Co. claimed without scientific backing that krill’s medicinal properties help the body regulate blood and solve problems such as diabetes, Seafood Source reported on August 17.
Due to such irresponsible and unsubstantiated claims, 400,000 tons of krill were harvested globally in 2020, the Australian-based Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which has 27 member countries, indicated in a report. As of August 2023, China has caught approximately 100,000 tons of krill from its 14 vessels in the Antarctic area alone, Schvartzman said.
This increasing exploitation of Antarctic krill stocks by the Chinese fishing fleet is of concern to conservationists, who see how China and Russia’s intransigence prevents the establishment of new marine protected areas (MPAs) off the Antarctic coast. Many environmentalists raised these issues at the Third Special Meeting of CCAMLR, held in Santiago, Chile, June 19-23.
“The boycott carried out in recent years by Russia and China regarding the creation of protected areas, especially an MPA being promoted by Chile and Argentina, illustrates the intent of Russia and China of having no limits on the capture of Antarctic species and their anti-environmentalist policy,” Schvartzman said. “Their blockade targets all available seas for overexploitation and also [strategies] against conservation in general in almost all international bodies.”
“Unfortunately they don’t accept that if you don’t protect krill there will be no fishing for anyone in the future,” Schvartzman added. “They have a short-term vision of immediate economic satisfaction. It is a must for Argentina and Chile to increase the diplomatic intensity against China and Russia, to defend the proposal that has already been boycotted for several years.”
The 42nd Annual Meeting of CCAMLR will be held in Hobart, Australia, October 16-27, 2023, where discussions will resume on the implementation of MPAs that China and Russia are attempting to avoid at all costs.
For their part, Chile and Argentina will continue to contribute to CCAMLR’s work toward the creation of a representative system of MPAs in the Southern Ocean, for the waters surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula, Chile’s Foreign Ministry indicated on its website.