Such information is vital to understanding changes in the krill population and establishing appropriate zones and seasons to allow a proportion of that population to be harvested.
While whales are commonly thought to be the most common krill predators, penguins and seals are actually bigger krill consumers.
The ‘NorChiK’ research project is in part a response to the fact that krill harvest volumes are rising due to increased demand for them in food and feed applications.
Between 1999 and 2009 the harvest varied between 100,000 and 150,000 tonnes but 2010 saw the yield jump to 212,000. While still miniscule as an omega-3 food source compared to fish and flax, the krill market is growing rapidly, especially in the feed area, and harvest volumes are expected to continue to grow.
Two Norwegian NorChik researchers will in February begin the research aboard the Aker BioMarine vessel, the Sea Saga, which will host researchers throughout the five-year project. Chinese researchers will follow at a later date.
Svein Iversen, Norway’s representative to the Southern Ocean, CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), said access to boats like the Sea Saga would dramatically reduce the cost of the project and provide better access to raw data.
It is expected the research will commence around the South Orkney area which is one of three krill harvest zones in the Antarctic, and focus on the feeding habits of penguins and seals.
Better biomass understanding
It has received scant scientific attention compared to the other two where British and US scientists have devoted more efforts.
“Including the South Orkney area in the research programme will give us better understanding of the dynamics and development of krill biomass and krill distribution in this part of the ocean,” Iversen told the Institute of Marine Research.
“This knowledge will be of great value for the future management of the krill resources. The basis for today’s management a ten year old survey that covered the whole fishing area, a big international effort that unfortunately has not been repeated.”
Last year Stony Brook University researchers found near-shore waters have significantly higher krill biomass density than offshore waters. The survey found that the near-shore waters had less inter-annual variation and higher biomass density than offshore waters.
“Although the spatial area of our near-shore survey is quite small when compared with that of the entire Scotia Sea, the high and stable densities of krill in shallow water may be more important ecologically than the offshore krill,” said lead researcher Dr Joseph Warren.
China is a new krill entrant, last year being its first harvest of 2000 tonnes, but that figure, like Norway’s, is expected to jump significantly.
“We have cooperated with China in marine research over many years. When China now has aspiration in krill-fishing, we find cooperation also in this area to be both convenient and desirable,” said Iversen.