UK health and wellness retail giant Holland & Barrett has decided to stop selling products containing krill oil, after a report from Greenpeace International claimed krill fishing expansions are threatening food chains in the “fragile” Antarctic Ocean. The retailer said it would introduce alternatives to meet the demand for omega-3 that has driven krill sales.
“We have therefore decided today to remove all krill-based products from sale in the coming weeks in line with the recent Greenpeace report that calls for limiting fishing for krill in areas proposed for new Ocean Sanctuaries. Krill oil is an important source of omega-3 and is a crucial supplement, so we will replace krill oil with algal oil, omega-3 products and other fish oil alternatives so our customers can continue to access this important supplement.”
Greenpeace UK, which had launched a regional campaign focused on stopping krill sales, praised the move in a reaction tweet:
“Incredible! In-store activities and 45,000 emails and later, @Holland_Barrett decided to ditch krill oil products that were putting the Antarctic Ocean at risk. It's proof of how when we work together, we can make a huge impact. Share to celebrate! #PeoplePower #ProtectAntarctic”
As part of its campaign, Greenpeace UK urged the public to email Holland & Barrett, which had initially defended itself as a retailer that takes “great pride in our ethical and environmental friendly policies."
"Holland & Barrett have defended their sales of krill oil as ‘harvested from sustainable sources,’ certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC),” the Greenpeace UK campaign page noted. “Yet with vast uncertainties over krill numbers and how climate change will affect krill populations in the Antarctic, how can it be possible to call krill fishing sustainable?”
In addition to its pressure on retailers, Greenpeace called for companies harvesting Antarctic krill to restrict fishing and so-called transshipping in areas under consideration as protected marine areas. Likewise, the group challenged companies buying krill to stop sourcing from ships that fish in such areas under consideration. It asked for all involved to publicly support the creation of a network of ocean sanctuaries in the Antarctic Ocean.
Impact on U.S. Retailers
At this point, there appears to be no similar campaign afoot in the United States, although Greenpeace’s oceans expert David Pinksy noted Holland & Barrett’s commitment should inspire U.S. retailers to take action that gets the krill fishing industry’s attention.
“We are sharing the news of Holland & Barrett with major U.S. retailers and encouraging them to use their buying power with krill suppliers to voluntarily and immediately stop fishing in areas under consideration for protections by the Antarctic Ocean Commission,” he told INSIDER, via email. He added any retailer that decides to take steps to address the problems with krill would be noted in the next edition of Carting Away the Oceans, Greenpeace’s sustainable seafood ranking of U.S. retailers due out this summer.
“Over the past years, we have seen the industry increasingly concentrate its activity, often catching the maximum allowed quota for the larger area within just a few discreet locations,” Pinksy explained. “There is still much scientists don’t understand about krill, so, based on the precautionary principle, Greenpeace is calling for a ban of the krill fishery in all areas under consideration as future sanctuaries.”
He further urged the public to join the more than one million people calling for an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary by visiting protecttheantarctic.org and by sharing their concerns about krill fishing in proposed Antarctic sanctuaries with their local grocery store.
The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED) said it was surprised by Holland & Barrett’s decision, given the robust body of evidence available that Antarctic krill is a very well-regulated fishery.
“The fishery is MSC-certified and has strong oversight by the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR),” noted Ellen Schutt, interim executive director of GOED, in an emailed statement. “Catch limits for krill are less than 1 percent of the stock biomass, which is far below even the standard ‘precautionary principle’ catch limits. There are too few people globally who consume enough EPA and DHA omega-3s, and since our main objective is to increase consumption around the world, we see krill oil as a part of that solution."
The retailer’s decision also shocked leading krill harvester and supplier Aker BioMarine.
“We feel bad that the decision at [Holland & Barrett] was made without reaching out to stakeholders and third parties,” said a company spokesperson, via email. “We encourage retailers to base these decisions on facts and science, and not give in to pressure from social media campaigns.”
The company also questioned Greenpeace UK’s tactics.
“Greenpeace UK covered krill products with stickers, which is product tampering and something we hope will not happen in the U.S.,” the spokesperson said, adding such tampering might not happen stateside due to the strict enforcement of the law.
License to Krill
The Greenpeace International report, “License to Krill: The Little-Known World of Antarctic Fishing” (pdf), was posted at the activist organization’s website on March 12 along with a summary of the findings and a call to action.
The group noted climate change and the growth in krill fishing in the Antarctic Ocean are threatening krill populations that serve as vital food for penguins, whales, seals and other marine animals. The Greenpeace report cited a statement in a 2016 fishery assessment by staff at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia: “[T]here is currently unprecedented interest in krill as a source of marine proteins and oils and more nations are involved in the fishery than in the past.”
The Greenpeace report further quoted officials in China and Norway talking about sharply increasing krill fishing.
“The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share,” said Liu Shenli, chairman of the China National Agricultural Development Group, in 2015.
Greenpeace reported global demand has driven the krill market to a value north of USD$200 million, with estimates the market could double by 2021. It highlighted China and Japan’s role in making Asia Pacific the most likely fastest growing region of the krill oil market through 2025.
Fishing for Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) in the Antarctic Ocean, also known as the Southern Ocean, includes a few sections of the South Atlantic Ocean and several areas of the Antarctic Ocean—defined as south of latitude 60 degrees. Greenpeace noted some of krill fishing sections around the Antarctic Peninsula and the coastline facing Australia and the Indian Ocean include potential or proposed marine protected areas.
The report stated 8 million tonnes of krill have been harvested in this CCAMLR managed fishing area over the past 40 years. CCAMLR data showed annual catch totals were significantly higher in the early 80s, when harvesting peaked, as well as in the late 80s/early 90s, the second highest catch period.
The total allowable catch (TAC) for the krill fishery is 5.6 million tonnes per year, but the trigger level—enforced catch limit—for each of the subareas is .62 million tonnes per year. This represents about 1 percent of the krill population, which is estimated at 60 million tonnes in this region.
According to CCAMLR, “The sustainability of the krill fishery is dependent on the size of the catch relative to the population.” Its management approach is to minimize ecosystem impact over maximizing the size of the fishery.
While Greenpeace acknowledged CCAMLR is widely considered one of the best managed fisheries in the world, the report claimed the krill biomass population figures are grossly outdated, especially considering the new information on the effect of climate change in the region and the increased whale population following the moratorium on whaling. Greenpeace also challenged the transparency of krill fishery management.
During its investigation of transhipping—when fishing vessels transfer krill catch to “reefer" ships that take the catch to port—the group requested details on transshipments from CCAMLR, which requires such transfers to be registered three days in advance. However, CCAMLR declined the request, saying the details can be made available only to contracted parties, not the public. In its report, Greenpeace claimed transshipping breaks the chain of custody and potentially provides cover for parties to hide illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
While the group has no hard evidence of such illegal activities, it noted, “[Our] investigations across many fisheries have consistently revealed the practice of transhipments at sea to be the source of some of the worst infringements in the fishing industry including human rights abuses.”
Is Antarctic Krill Fishing Sustainable?
MSC certified Aker BioMarine’s Antarctic krill fishing operation in 2010, with active participation from the stakeholders Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Norway.
“It was a bold move putting this fishery forward into assessment as there are divergent views on the merits of fishing in the southern oceans and also on fishing low trophic species such as krill,” said MSC Chief Executive Rupert Howes, in a press release following the certification. “We rely on the independent and rigorous science based assessment to determine whether or not each individual fishery that enters assessment meets MSC’s standard for environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing. This fishery has met that standard."
Rimfrost Antarctic krill operations were certified MSC in 2015, but the company self-suspended the certificate in June 2017, while it builds a new vessel to replace its previous vessel lost to the bankruptcy of the ship’s owner Emerald Fisheries. Rimfrost cannot use the MSC label for fish caught after June 2015, but the company can re-enter the MSC certification program following an audit to verify continued compliance.
A third MSC certification is underway for Antarctic krill fishing by Deris S.A. Pesca Chile, with a final assessment expected in April this year and public certification expected in May, according to MSC data.
Fellow marine steward, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), has called the overall Antarctic krill fishery “in good condition” in its annual report on reduction fisheries. However, the SFP report cautioned the positive review does not mean ecosystem monitoring should be ignored.
“The current evaluation does not consider future ecosystem effects (such as warming of the Antarctic by anthropogenic climate change) and the relationship to fishery management,” SFP advised.
Greenpeace challenged the notion krill fishing in the Antarctic is sustainable. Along with Greenpeace, the Pew Environment Group and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition raised objections to MSC’s 2010 certification of Aker’s krill fishery as sustainable, citing key “unknowns” such as the impacts of climate change and fishing operations, as well as understanding krill’s life cycle and importance to the regional food web.
Greenpeace said its investigation revealed fishing is increasingly encroaching on areas known as penguin and whale feeding grounds. “Crucially, krill fishing is taking place in areas which have been put forward as ocean sanctuaries,” the Greenpeace report stated. “Such protected areas will help these marine ecosystems to build resilience to the combined impacts of climate change, pollution and fishing.”
A spokesperson for Aker BioMarine defended the sustainability of the Antarctic krill fishing area. “The report raises claims without presenting scientific evidence to back them up,” the spokesperson said, via email, reiterating the strict management of the area by CCAMLR and the certification by MSC.
In October 2017, Aker committed USD$1 million to support the Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund (AWR) over the next five years to help promote and foster research on the Antarctic ecosystem.
“It is important for us to support krill-related research in order to protect the Antarctic krill biomass and its surrounding ecosystem,” said Matts Johansen, CEO at Aker BioMarine, in a press statement. “We need to have the science and data available to make educated decisions on how to take the best care of the ecosystem in which we work to safeguard the future of the Antarctic fishery.”
Note: Updated below on Mar. 27, 2018.
MSC issued a statement on its website Mar. 27, stating the 2015 re-assessment of Aker’s certification showed the company not only maintained the highest environmental sustainability standards, but it has also improved its practices and knowledge to better manage the fishery.
“In order to determine the sustainability of the fishery, a team of independent scientists and auditors considered all available science and reviewed the fishery’s management practices against the MSC Fisheries Standard taking particular note of krill’s status as a key low-trophic level species,” MSC explained, noting it has conducted surveillance audits every year since Aker’s initial certification. “Their analysis confirms that AkerBioMarine is protecting the unique environment, habitats and species living in the Southern Ocean.”
MSC emphatically stated past claims of a “gold rush” on Anarctic krill or that krill harvesting hurts the penguin population have been proven false. It added overall quota determinations specifically take into account the needs of dependent predators such as penguins and whales.
“The best available science from CCAMLR suggests that krill fishing is at such a low level that penguins and marine mammals which also consume krill in large quantities are not negatively impacted by fishing activity,” MSC assured.