The Antarctic: A Place for Penguins Not Industrial Fishing
Written by Chris Packham: TV presenter, naturalist, wildlife expert, photographer and author with a passionate concern for conservation and the environment.
Penguins have lived in the Antarctic for millions of years. They’re perfectly adapted for surviving conditions in one of the harshest environments on earth.
Emperor penguins’ agile flippers mean they almost fly underwater, swimming as deep as 500 metres beneath the icy Antarctic surface in search of food. With none of the alternatives open to other birds, Adelie penguins build their nests from stones, and the exchange of useful pebbles is central to their mating rituals. Gentoo penguins are so streamlined they can reach speeds of 22 miles per hour underwater, useful when your search for food might involve dodging deadly Leopard seals.
Penguins survive in the Antarctic because of krill.
Krill are small crustaceans, pretty similar in appearance to shrimp. There are several different species – the ones that live in the Antarctic are the biggest, but they still only grow to be 6 cm long. They gather in huge swarms of millions of individuals, and they are central to all life in the Antarctic. Almost everything there eats krill – not just penguins, but Crabeater seals, Humpback whales, Black-browed albatross and more – and those that don’t eat krill probably eat something that does.
But Antarctic animals aren’t the only ones with an appetite for krill. Industrial fishing ships are hungry to expand their operations further, as revealed in a new report from Greenpeace, and hope to catch krill in previously untapped waters. It is processed and ends up as food for fish farms around the world, or is even sold as unnecessary ‘krill oil’ health supplements. The industry uses nets or even massive suction tubes to scoop up swarms of krill. And they’re taking it from exactly the places that penguins feed: I’ve led expeditions to the Antarctic and seen boats fishing just a mile or so from huge penguin colonies.
The simple truth is that the science that these companies are using to justify their business is out of date. No one knows enough about krill populations, let alone about the local impacts of catching krill so close to areas of astonishing biodiversity. Also, any industrial fishing brings with it other threats. We’ve seen fishing accidents all over the world: oil spills, ships running aground, huge fires. Just one of these could have devastating results in such a remote and extreme environment.
This is why I am supporting Greenpeace’s campaign for Antarctic Ocean Sanctuaries. These huge areas would be off-limits to fishing ships, and would mean protection for places that are vital as foraging grounds for penguins and other wildlife.
Only governments have the power to create these Antarctic Ocean Sanctuaries. But we need the companies that are catching krill to act as champions for our oceans rather than blocking environmental protection.
I challenge these krill companies to stop fishing in any areas that are being proposed as protected areas in the Antarctic, and to use their political influence to help lobby for the creation of those sanctuaries.
If these companies change their ways, they could tip the political balance in favour of Antarctic protection. And it’s in their interests too: more ocean sanctuaries means healthier oceans, which means more fish for us and for wildlife.