Why NOAA is banning krill harvest off the West Coast

Krill pictured off Anvers Island, Antarctica.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) prohibited krill harvesting off the US West Coast. The ban goes into effect Aug. 12.

Krill are tiny shrimplike creatures. They eat algae and, occasionally, other little critters. Ultimately, we all rely on photosynthetic organisms for our daily bread – they're the only organisms able to use the sun's energy to directly create carbohydrates.

In the marine realm, it's krill that play the important role of converting plant matter into flesh. Anything that's not a vegetarian – and that includes whales, seals, and many, many fish – relies on krill, or similar shrimplike creatures (like copepods), to convert plant matter into animal protein and fat.

Salmon eat them; that's how they get their characteristic orangish color. So does the blue whale. That tells you something about the little shrimp's abundance. There are enough to support the largest animal ever to have existed.

Indeed, judged by sheer biomass – the combined weight of all living individuals – Antarctic krill are the single most successful animal on the planet. And they support large, both literally and figuratively, quantities of life. If you were to put all the world's marine mammals on a scale, you'd find half that mass came from the krill-rich waters surrounding Antarctica. That includes one-fifth of the world's whales. All that is because of krill.

Greenpeace says of krill:

It is currently the largest fishery in the Southern Ocean (Everson 2000). The market for krill is expected to grow in line with increasing demand globally for aquaculture feed (Nicol & Foster 2003). Previous difficulties related to rapid spoiling of the catch and high levels of fluoride leaching from the shells into the meat have largely been overcome by improved and more rapid on-board processing techniques. Some facilities exist aboard vessels to manufacture bio-diesel from krill. The decline in sea ice in the south-western Atlantic has enabled the krill fishery to operate year round (Smetacek & Nicol 2005). This and the improved processing methods have effectively removed the last constraints that were limiting growth of this fishery. In addition, the development of new products is taking place, including the production of krill oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids as a human dietary supplement.

There are no krill fisheries yet in the 200-mile wide exclusive economic zone off the US West Coast. But, as Greenpeace points out, demand for krill is on the rise. Usually, harvested krill are ground and squeezed into meal or oil that goes to feed livestock or fish. But some foresee a fish food shortage.

There's already talk that rising fishmeal prices will spark a krill war in the Southern Ocean.  And a 2002 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Program used the term "fish meal trap" to refer to that moment when supply of the a limited resource (fish meal) would no longer meet demand — a peak fish moment.

A later FAO report says:

Even with stable (neither increasing nor decreasing) supplies of raw fish for fishmeal production, it is also argued that the growing demand for fishmeal will continue to drive the price of fishmeal and fish oil upwards. Upon reaching a certain price level, the use of fishmeal and fish oil may no longer be financially viable.

It goes without saying that environmentalists would rather avoid that scenario. By the time market prices respond to a scarcity in fish and/or krill meal, who knows how many marine animals will have starved to death. So more than anything, the NOAA krill ban may be proactive step toward protecting the California food web – especially large, slow-breeding animals such as whales that already suffer from low numbers.

And that's how many are hailing it:

Mother Jones says, "Today's rule is a rare instance of foresight in fisheries management, designed to preserve the foundation of a healthy marine foodweb in the California Current ecosystem, including its five National Marine Sanctuaries."

Oceana's Ben Enticknap tells the AP: "It's proactive and precautionary taking action now before there is a crisis, rather than waiting for a big problem to occur and then having to deal with it."

The West Coast has seen firsthand what happens when krill stocks collapse. In 2003, rockfish populations off California tanked, reports the AP. Then, in 2005, sea birds and other marine life began showing signs of starvation. Scientists eventually blamed a plummeting krill population.

It wasn't from overfishing, though: 2004-'05 was an El Nino year, a periodic warming of the western eastern Pacific. That's when warm surface waters halt the upwelling of cooler, nutrient-rich waters from the deep. Primary productivity slows, and so does everything that depends on it.

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