Antarctic krill isn't just whale food. It has become widely known as an important source of essential omega-3s in healthy human diets — reportedly even better for you than omega-3s found in various types of fish, due to potentially dangerous levels of mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), metals, and radioactive poisons found in some fish.
Many marine animals eat krill, and they have recently been joined by humans, who use the shrimp-like crustaceans to make krill oil, a product similar to fish oil.
But where does krill come from, and is it ours to take?
There’s no doubt these tiny crustaceans, though considered on the bottom of the food chain because they eat phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish larvae, and algae, provide important and highly desired benefits to human bodies.
Yet while krill health benefits are currently being mass-marketed, Antarctic krill serves an even bigger and more critical purpose that cannot be overlooked: it’s integral to the survival of Antarctica’s marine and animal life - wildlife you’ll discover in droves on your Antarctic expedition.
Interesting Facts About Krill
Krill weigh less than a gram each and are approximately two inches in length. Though they’re individually quite small, it is estimated that the weight of the world’s krill is greater than the total combined weight of people on the planet!
Krill are survivors
Of the 85 known krill species, pink and opaque Antarctic krill of the southern ocean and Antarctic waters make up the largest group, with a total weight of approximately 125 million tons to 6 billion tons thriving in Antarctica’s waters.
Female krill can lay up to 10,000 eggs at a time and their lifespan is up to 10 years, which is impressive for a creature hunted as heavily as krill.
Antarctic and Arctic krill feed on phytoplankton and other microscopic plants when they drift to the water’s surface at night. In the daytime hours they avoid predators in deep water—at a depth of approximately 98 meters (320 feet) below the surface.
Krill survive on carbon dioxide and the sun’s rays and, during certain seasons, congregate in large swarms visible even from space.
For a very small organism, krill have a gigantic presence — especially around Antarctica.
Krill are a crucial part of Antarctic ecosystem
Our understanding of Antarctic krill’s life cycle, however, isn’t important solely because of krill’s pervasiveness or health benefits.
Antarctic krill is of great importance to the ecosystem, specifically for the 100s of different animals which depend on it for nourishment. Every year, over half of the krill in the Antarctic is consumed by whales (notably blue whales and baleen whales), seals, penguins, squid, and fish.
Now, imagine for a moment that the most substantial food source in the Antarctic disappeared.
Declining krill populations are a global concern
Without krill, most Antarctic life forms would completely disappear. In fact, krill in Norwegian basically translates as "whale food," though many species rely on krill to survive. Yet recent studies have shown Antarctic krill numbers have dropped as much as 80 per cent since the 1970s. Climate change and overfishing account for population decline in most species of krill.
One of its primary food sources in the region is sea ice algae which, due to global warming, ocean acidification, and declines in ice cover, have disappeared, causing a decrease in krill.
Additionally, in 2011, krill harvesting increased to approximately 180,000 tons, due to the increase of fishmeal production in aquaculture, and dietary and medical products. China has also begun krill fishery programs, and demand for human consumption is predicted to increase in the future.
Krill predators are being affected as well
It’s no secret that global warming effects have increased concern for Antarctica’s wildlife and well- being. According to Quark Expeditions' penguinologist, Dr. Tom Hart, historically, penguin populations have risen, but the number of Adélie and chinstrap penguins have fallen.
This alarming decrease in numbers indicates a trend toward accelerated warming resulting in dwindling populations. Krill, whose numbers shrink according to the amount of ice, is the primary food source for both Adélies and chinstraps.
Gentoo penguins, which rely on other sources of food for survival, are the only species of the three studied whose numbers have actually increased.
Guests on our South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari expedition get excellent (relatively close) views of these penguins and, consequently, get a glimpse into the ways in which krill support the ecosystem of the South Georgia Islands.
Protecting Antarctic krill for future generations
There are, however, initiatives underway designed to protect this species. Individually, Antarctic krill are small, but their widespread presence is a crucial part of the region’s wildlife and ecosystem.
An example of one of these initiatives is the oceanographic team at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which continues to monitor and study krill reproduction and populations and the health of Antarctic wildlife that rely on it for survival.
Initiatives such as this allow fish species to be managed based on the relationships between them and how and when humans harvest krill, according to the effects on the marine food chain.
In researching these elements of the ecosystem, we can determine critical points when sufficient amounts of krill must be available for penguins and seals, and advise krill fishery managers accordingly.
Learn more about krill
You can learn more about krill and the wildlife and ecosystems they support through several enriching presentations provided by our polar experts - including several esteemed marine biologists - or on a polar adventure on our small ship Antarctic cruises.