Bitty Krill Get Big
Critter File
Posted: January 01, 2024
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    A bird flies past Aker BioMarine’s krill-fishing Antarctic Endurance ship off the coast of the South Orkney Islands. The islands lie north of the Antarctic Peninsula. (AP/David Keyton)
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    An Antarctic krill (Chris Gilbert/British Antarctic Survey)
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    A whale breaches the surface of the Southern Ocean (also called the Antarctic Ocean) near the Antarctica Peninsula. (AP/David Keyton)
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    Krill processing waste pours into the ocean from a drain on the Chinese fishing vessel Shen Lan. (AP/David Keyton)
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    Seabirds follow China’s Long Fa fishing vessel in the Southern Ocean north of the Antarctic Peninsula. (AP/David Keyton)
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Antarctic Endeavour glides across the water’s silky surface in Antarctica. Dozens of fin whales spray rainbows from their blowholes. Massive glaciers rise all around. It looks like a fairy tale . . . until you spot (and smell!) the sludge draining from the ship into the water.

The foul runoff comes from processing krill.

What Are Krill?

Krill are paper-clip-sized crustaceans. They are very important in the Antarctic food web. A food web is an interdependent group of food chains in an ecosystem. (“Interdependent” means all the parts depend on each other.) Krill are tiny. But bigger creatures can’t live without them as a food source. And people can’t get enough of them!

In the United States, krill fishing is against the law. It could leave whales, seals, and other krill-lovers without enough food. Want to harvest krill in Alaska? You’ll get caught if you try. But here in Antarctica, big companies fish krill by the billions. It seems that no one pays attention.

Krill fishing in Antarctica started in the 1960s with the Soviet Union. People from that country were looking for a protein source that could be canned like sardines.

Now people want krill more than ever. The tiny creatures feed other fish raised on farms. They are used in omega-3 supplements, pet food, and protein shakes.

Not only do people want more krill, they have gotten better at catching them too. Starting every December, around a dozen mostly Norwegian and Chinese vessels brave the rough seas. They follow massive swarms of krill toward the South Pole. In a little over a decade, the krill catch has quadrupled.

The company that does the most krill fishing is Aker BioMarine from Norway. Its anglers use long, cylindrical nets attached to vacuums. These ships can suck up more than 1,300 tons of krill per day. (A ton is about 2,000 pounds!) The company’s most advanced ship grabs about 550 tons per day. That much food would feed about 150 humpback whales!

Why? It’s amazing to see how a teeny-tiny creature can keep a gigantic ecosystem in balance.