China’s interest in Antarctica’s rich fishing grounds has grown significantly over the past 20 years. A member of the international body governing use of these resources since 2007, the country is also involved in managing the Southern Ocean’s two existing marine protected areas (MPAs). Three new MPAs are due to be voted on later this year, and China’s approval will be crucial. Will China help secure a sustainable future for Antarctica’s ocean?
Dr. Binbin Li, Duke Kunshan University
Dr. Julia Xue, Shanghai Jiaotong University
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Antarctica’s krill fishery is big business, and China is one of the biggest players. In May this year, the country launched the world’s largest krill fishing vessel – a 120-metre-long giant called Shen Lan. Another even larger vessel was commissioned in April and is due for completion in 2023.
Krill are 2.5-inch-long zooplankton found throughout the Southern Ocean, often gathering in large swarms off the Antarctica Peninsula. They are fished to go into animal feed used in industrial farming and aquaculture, and also as an omega-3 dietary supplement – known as krill oil – for human consumption.
The demand for krill oil is increasing in China, both as a health product, notably among young middle-class consumers, and as a nutritional ingredient in infant formula. China makes up a big part of the global krill oil market, which is expected to double from US$352.9 million in 2018 to $843.3 million by 2026.
But krill are much more than just another health supplement. They are at the centre of Antarctica’s food web and the primary food source for many species there. As such, commercial krill fishing impacts a wide range of other species, including penguins, whales and seals.
Krill are also important for mitigating climate change. They feed on carbon-filled phytoplankton at the surface of the ocean, and the waste they subsequently produce sinks to the bottom, trapping the carbon for decades. It’s estimated that Antarctic krill remove up to 23 million tonnes of carbon each year in this way, equivalent to the amount produced by 35 million cars.
But krill are also threatened by climate change. As Binbin Li tells us in this podcast: “They really depend on ice, especially sea ice… As the climate changes, glaciers are melting and the sea ice is retreating, and the population of krill is impacted, as well as other animals that feed on krill.”
Aware of these issues, the world’s five leading krill fishing companies, which include a Chinese state-owned corporation and together represent 85% of the whole Antarctic krill industry, agreed in 2018 to stop fishing in ecologically vulnerable waters off the Antarctic Peninsula, including around penguin colonies.
The official international governing body that is tasked with protecting marine life in the Southern Ocean – the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) – is also pushing hard on krill conservation. On top of the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf MPA, ratified in 2009, and the Ross Sea MPA, a predominantly no-take zone ratified in 2016, CCAMLR member states are proposing three additional MPAs that aim not only to protect the Antarctic ecosystem in general, but also krill nursery habitats. These new MPAs are the Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea and Eastern Antarctica.
A CCAMLR member since 2007, China has yet to ratify these three new proposals. But as Professor Julia Xue of Shanghai Jiao Tong University tells us in this podcast, the country has long been aware of the need for marine conservation, setting up its first MPA as early as the 1950s.
Asked if China will agree to the three proposals at the upcoming annual meeting of CCAMLR members in October, Dr Xue was optimistic: “China wants to be responsible, and to showcase how much effort it puts into that area [of marine conservation].”
Guest Host: Jennifer Turner
Producer: Marcy Trent Long
Associate Producer: Chermaine Lee
Sound engineer: Chris Wood
Intro/outro music: Alex Mauboussin