Kim Bernard and her team conduct an acoustic survey. Photo copyright 2015 by Chris Linder

An abundant but imperiled species draws scientists to Antarctica

By Mark Floyd, OSU News and Research Communications

“When all of a sudden the city air filled with snow,
the distinguishable flakes
blowing sideways,
looked like krill
fleeing the maw of an advancing whale.”

 — Billy Collins, from Neither Snow

One of the most important animal species in the world lives in the frigid Southern Ocean, where individuals may reach a ripe old age of six or seven years, despite growing to a length of only 2 inches and not being able to swim against currents or tides to escape predators.

And the predators are many — from the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth, the blue whale, to Adélie penguins, seals and a host of seabirds. Of late, a new predator has emerged to this small, aquatic crustacean known as Euphasia superba — or Antarctic krill. It is humans, who are harvesting krill at an increasingly brisk rate as entrepreneurs have discovered lucrative markets for them as a nutritional supplement. Krill oil tablets, touted for their omega-3 oils and other health benefits, cost $20 to $30 for a small bottle.

The biomass of Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is thought to exceed the total mass of all the humans on Earth.

Krill are so abundant, there historically have been few concerns about overharvesting them. In fact, if you put all of the Antarctic krill in the Southern Ocean on one side of a giant scale and the world’s 7.5 billion humans on the other side, the scale would tip in favor of the krill.

On the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago that people pointed to the iconic salmon in the Pacific Northwest and said it was a limitless resource.

Count Oregon State University marine ecologist Kim Bernard among those who are beginning to hear faint warning bells. It isn’t just an increase in human harvesting of krill — which also are used for aquaculture feed and pet food — that concerns the native of South Africa. It is what humans are doing to the planet that may be the biggest threat to the Antarctic krill, she says.

Read more about Kim Barnard's study of krill

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