The past few months have been disappointing for U.S. environmentalists - the Supreme Court approved plans to kill all the wildlife in an Alaskan lake, the EPA backtracked on one of the most insanely destructive and short-sighted practices currently still legal, mountaintop removal, the House passed a less-than-ideal climate change bill - but this week was a total win for the environment. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a rule forbidding krill fishing off the West Coast. In what can only be regarded as an outright miracle given the current state of fishing regulations, NOAA issued the rule before there actually was any krill fishing in the Pacific. In the ocean conservation world, we regularly hear about fish stocks whose populations have declined by enormous amounts - 70, 80, 90% - but fishery management is still discussing whether to increase catches. So the decision to protect krill before there are any fisheries for it, at a time when there is a growing commercial interest in krill, is nothing short of visionary. Is this the beginning of the end of business as usual for U.S. fisheries governance?
One can only hope. Krill are enormously important for marine ecosystems. Whales eat them, fish eat them, birds eat them. Krill feed on phytoplankton, and thus in a sense function as plant energy conversion machines. The animals who feed on them receive the benefit of plant energy in a form they can use. It's similar to what grass-eating animals like cows and sheep do for humans, who can't digest large amounts of grass. Thus despite the fact that they are extremely numerous, many marine food chains would be placed at risk by extensive krill harvesting, which, thanks to new technology, is becoming easier and cheaper. Along with the rising demand for krill to use in pet products, nutritional supplements, and feed for farmed fish, many conservationists worry that krill could be in danger. I suppose they base that on the dismal experience of just about every fishery that has experienced a sharp rise in popularity. Except that when you fish whales or bluefin tuna to near extinction, you're depleting species higher up on the food chain, so fewer species depend on them. So many species depend on krill, or even on other species that consume krill, that it simply isn't worth the risk of opening up the fishery. Some commercially fished species that feed on krill are already struggling because of overexploitation, and managers have had to reduce catch limits. Adding the stress of a diminished food supply to these species' burdens just didn't make sense.
I mention Pacific krill on this Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition blog because one of our main campaigns centers around protecting Antarctic krill, which are currently being fished, threatening the Antarctic food web. The decision to protect U.S. krill was presented as a precautionary one based on a holistic view of marine ecosystems, but the management body that regulates Southern Ocean fisheries, CCAMLR, is also precautionary and ecosystem-based. Allegedly. It will be interesting to see what the U.S. position on krill is at the upcoming CCAMLR meetings. Will they take a similar line? Either way, it's heartwarming to see that NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has already had such a positive impact.