Climate and Nature

How fisheries data can help sustain Antarctica's ecosystems

Antarctic krill. data

Fishing industry data on krill can help us protect the ecosystem this species supports. Image: Flickr/Norkrill

Anna Silyakova
Science lead, HUB Ocean
Sebastian Menze
Scientist, Institute of Marine Research, Norway.
Pål Einar Skogrand
VP Policy and Impact, Aker Biomarine
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Climate and Nature

  • Antarctic krill is the vital part of the food chain, nurturing diverse life forms in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.
  • It is also targeted by the fishing industry for its valuable Omega-3 fatty acids and use in aquaculture feeds.
  • But data collected by the fishing industry on krill can help us protect the ecosystem this species supports.

Antarctic krill is a ‘keystone’ species in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, embodying a pivotal role in sustaining the region's delicate ecosystem. This free-swimming, protein-rich crustacean is a vital part of the food chain, nurturing diverse life forms including birds, fish, penguins and marine mammals. Beyond this, krill plays an important role in the biogeochemical cycle of the Southern Ocean.

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This extraordinary creature's value extends beyond its ecological significance too. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids sought for supplements and aquaculture feeds, krill is targeted by the fishing industry. Yet, this industry does not only provide krill products but also scientific insights into the ecosystem it relies upon, thanks to the data collected from the fishing vessels.

Fishing vessels are equipped with a device called an echosounder. This instrument determines the depth of the seabed and also shows the objects in the water column that have densities different from seawater, including animals, shipwrecks, submarines and gas flares.

By analysing the echosounder data, scientists see the krill swarms, their distribution patterns migration dynamics and even predators’ behaviour. Combining with other data that describe physical and chemical properties of seawater in the area, scientists study how climate change alters the ecosystem's health.

Data-based science initiatives and projects empower the regulation of fishing practices, paving the way for sustainable harvesting that ensures ample nourishment for the entire ecosystem, while fostering equitable growth for krill fishing enterprises and thereby contributing to national economies and global food production.

The krill fishery in the Southern Ocean is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international treaty organization established in 1982, which instructs the fishing industry on where and how much krill they can take. Krill harvesting is restricted to the area around the Antarctic Peninsula, called CCAMLR Area 48, where scientists found the highest densities of krill (48-63 million tonnes). Fishing quotas are based on historical catch limits divided into regional units (e.g. Area 48.1- 48.4). These quotas have been static since 2009 with the limit of the current total allowable catch set to 620,000 tonnes.

The Scotia Sea and Antarctic Peninsula where fishing for Antarctic krill is most concentrated, showing the South Shetland Islands, the South Orkney Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. FAO Subarea boundaries are shown in red and the South Georgia and South Sandwich Maritime Zone in yellow. The proportion of the current interim krill catch level (the trigger level, 620,000 t) allocated to each Subarea is: Subarea 48.1 – 25% (155,000 t); Subarea 48.2 – 45% (279,000 t); Subarea 48.3 – 45% (279,000 t); Subarea 48.4 – 15% (93,000 t). Proportions sum to more than 100% to allow flexibility for fishing operations, though the trigger level must not be exceeded in any given fishing season. (Trathan, 2023)
The Scotia Sea and Antarctic Peninsula where fishing for Antarctic krill is most concentrated. Image: Trathan, P. N. (2023)

The catches remain well below the upper precautionary limit set for fishery, according to 10 years of data collected around the South Orkney Islands and published by the Institute of Marine Research of Norway. However, the basis for the quota does not include annual baseline information on mammal population, the health of the ecosystem, the effects of climate change and the influential biogeochemical role of Antarctic krill.

CCAMLR is currently revising its krill management to renew the regulations and hence, plans to increase krill data collection, monitoring and analysis through a new system called “feedback management”.

Working with existing data

There is, however, a lot of data already collected and shared from fishing vessels that has never been used by regulators to contribute to science-based decisions. Non-profit foundation HUB Ocean makes a difference in this space by delivering on the mandate, given by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (a group of world leaders from 18 great ocean countries), to increase the amount of industrial data being shared according to FAIR principles (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable).

As part of this effort, the recent partnership between Norwegian krill fishing company Aker BioMarine and HUB Ocean marks a shift in industrial data accessibility and utilization. Aker Biomarine has shared a compilation of echosounder data gathered over the past 10 years of the company’s fishing missions to the Southern Ocean. The data was made available using cloud-native data infrastructure built by HUB Ocean called the Ocean Data Platform.

Strata and transects for the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research South Orkney Island survey from 2011 to 2020. The dots mark the positions for trawl sampling, which are fixed. Note that the south-western part of the coverage area is within a protected area where trawling is not allowed. (Skaret et al., 2023)
Strata and transects for the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research South Orkney Island survey from 2011 to 2020. Image: Skaret et al., 2023

A common problem with sharing acoustic data is its big volume that takes a lot of storage space. Storing the data on this cloud platform provides a unique opportunity for this data to find an international home and be fused with other data of similar types to fortify comprehensive research initiatives and policy-making processes.

Integral to this collaboration was scientist Sebastian Menze from the Institute of Marine Research of Norway. Employing his open-source Krill Scan Python package, he processed Aker Biomarine’s data, making it even more accessible and conducive to broader scientific utilization. The data analysis capabilities and computing power offered through the Ocean Data Platform have considerably optimized the processing of voluminous echosounder data, revolutionizing the speed and depth of analyses that once required weeks to complete.

Aker BioMarine's krill vessel Antarctic Endurance is seen at quay in Aalesund, Norway January 18, 2019.  The 130m long ship is the world's first krill vessel built in Norway by the VARD group and its value is about 1 billion Norwegian Kroner (NOK).  NTB scanpix/Svein Ove Ekornesvaag via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NORWAY OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NORWAY.
Aker BioMarine's krill vessel Antarctic Endurance is seen at quay in Aalesund, Norway Image: REUTERS

The processed data will further be used for other exciting studies of the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean. Researchers will look at the feeding behavior of marine mammals and penguins in the area and construct an ecosystem model to predict future dependencies of ecosystem elements and climate change.

CCAMLR has set an ambition to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas in the waters around Antarctica. It is believed this will help enable both Antarctic wildlife and krill fishery activity to thrive in the long term. A tangible example of this vision is evident in the voluntary restricted zones adopted by Aker Biomarine and the Association of Responsible Krill harvesting companies, showcasing dedication to protecting penguin colonies during breeding seasons and maintaining year-round conservation measures for critical Antarctic habitats.

At the crossroads of science, industry, governance and technology, the Antarctic krill narrative is evolving. Collaborative endeavours, spearheaded by Aker Biomarine in partnership with HUB Ocean and the Institute Marine Research of Norway, such as acoustic monitoring of krill biomass at CCAMLR-defined scales, exemplify a commitment to responsible and informed practices that our ocean and planet need. These examples of thoughtful leadership and collaborative stewardship are crucial for the journey ahead.

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