12/01/2006 - There's been much ado about penguins on movie screens across America lately. It started with "March of the Penguins" and now it's "Happy Feet." And while Mumble and his friends may be dancing up a storm on the big screen, real-life penguins, seals and other species in Antarctica, as illustrated by Mumble's journey in the film, face an uncertain future thanks to irresponsible fishing practices.Luckily, though, this story still can have a happy ending in real-life too. By taking steps to address poorly regulated fishing for a small shrimp-like crustacean known as Antarctic krill, the international community can help ensure that penguins have plenty of food to feed their young for years to come. At the same time, climate change, other environmental threats and harmful human activities in the region also need greater oversight and attention.
Demand for krill rises
Antarctic krill serve as the "bread and butter" for hundreds of species -- including penguins, whales, albatross and seals -- in the Southern Ocean ecosystem. Yet, while krill comprise one of the largest biomasses in our oceans, recent research shows that the demand for krill by these animals has begun to exceed supply in certain areas.Increasingly, penguins and other species dependent upon krill for food must now compete with new predators -- industrial fishing vessels that often trawl for krill in areas close to penguin rookeries and seal feeding grounds to supply the growing demand for aquaculture feed.
Swimming near the ocean's surface, krill swarms are easy to spot and therefore catch in large numbers, by both penguins and man. But new technology has dramatically tipped the scales.
The craftiest seal or most industrious penguin is no match for today's state-of-the-art industrial fishing trawlers. The latest generation of commercial vessel is literally a floating factory. New technology allows krill to be essentially "vacuumed" onto a vessel, where it can be processed immediately.
Trawlers seek `pink gold'
Employing sophisticated methods to land, process and flash-freeze their catch, a single new ship can harvest up to 120,000 metric tons of krill in a fishing season -- roughly equal to the catch of the entire krill fishing fleet in years past. With demand for krill poised to skyrocket as a source of feed for industrial aquaculture operations and as a key ingredient in several new cosmetics, Antarctic waters are attracting an ever-increasing array of industrial fishing trawlers in search of this "pink gold" of the deep.
There is still time, however, for the international community to adopt a sound fishing management system to protect krill as a food source for wildlife in the Antarctic.
Over the years, the international community has worked together successfully to combat common threats to the health of the Antarctic, and this case should be no different. The United States and other fishing nations should not expand the krill fishery before adequate conservation measures are in place, lest we risk irreversible harm to this unique and wondrous wilderness -- one of the last pristine environments left on earth.
A recent study published in the journal Science predicted that, because of overfishing, the world will run out of its commercial seafood stocks by 2048 if steep declines in marine species continue. But despite what some in the aquaculture industry may tell you, harvesting Antarctic krill to feed the fish farms of the world is not a recipe for meeting the global demand for seafood. It's a recipe for disaster, and the entire Antarctic ecosystem will pay the price.
Recently, negotiators from around the globe met to discuss conservation of the Southern Ocean and its resources. Sadly, while they made some progress on addressing the danger of krill overfishing, much remains undone and the krill fishery remains poorly managed.
As policy-makers sit down with their children at local movie theatres to watch the adventures of those adorable little penguins, it's important they remember the challenges facing real-life penguins, seals and other residents of the Antarctic.
Dangers not fictional
Though small in stature, krill play an enormous role in the Antarctic ecosystem. The consequences of failing to act decisively in stopping poorly managed krill fishing are anything but fiction to the penguins, seals, whales and other residents of the Antarctic.
It would be a shame if those in power were less animated in their resolve to protect the Antarctic food chain than characters created by a computer for a motion picture.
Clifton Curtis is project director and Andi Pearl is project manager of the Trusts' Antarctic Krill Conservation Project, at www.krillcount.org.