Growing to a mere 2.4 inches in size, krill are the small shrimp-like creatures which are perhaps one of the planet's most plentiful life-forms in terms of weight, and are now in increasing demand for use in fish feed (less need for those artificial colorants for pinker salmon flesh), fish oil supplements, soy sauce and medicines. And now, they may also appear as an ingredient in your food.
Though krill are found in all oceans, they are aptly named "pink gold" for their abundance in the Southern Ocean. They are the keystone species of the regional ecosystems here — in effect, acting as the basic dietary staple for seals, whales, penguins and birds such as the tenacious snow petrels, which feed exclusively on krill and will fly more than 500 km (300 miles) from their inland nests to fish for them.
However, increasing human demand for fish oils high in Omega-3 fatty acids is causing concern that the krill populations could be competitively over-fished as more trawlers come in. Climate change and the possibility of melting ice shelves around Antarctica could also have a considerable impact, as the krill depend on the algal blooms that flourish around such areas.
Companies such as Norway's Aker BioMarine, which plans to launch a krill oil diet supplement in 500 shops across the Nordic countries and the U.S. by March 2008, are working with WWF to ensure sustainable catches.
Aker BioMarine's biggest competitor is Canada's Neptune Technologies & Bioresources, which recently signed research agreements with Nestle and the Yoplait dairy division of U.S. food manufacturer General Mills to study the use of krill in foods. Just last week, further commercialization was made possible by an American panel which ruled that Neptune's oil, which is already sold in capsule form, was also safe as a food ingredient.
So will the proliferation of krill-derived products mean over-fishing? With total annual krill catches coming to 120,000 tonnes out of the estimated 500 million tonnes in the Southern ocean, current catches are not seen as a threat to the vast stocks of krill.
"Krill is not over-fished ocean-wide ... we can still create a sustainable fishery," says Jerry Leape, director of the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project, part of the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group.
"But much of the fishery concentrates in areas where krill swarms are most convenient. And that is where many natural predators also depend on krill," he said, adding that trawlers should be required to spread catches around the continent.
::Environmental News Network
Image: Richard Seaman