SINGAPORE (Reuters) - In the global rush for resources, a tiny pink crustacean living in the seas around Antarctica is testing man's ability to manage one of the world's last great fisheries without damaging the environment.
Krill, which grow to about 6 cm (2 inches), occur in vast schools and is the major source of food for whales, seals, penguins and sea birds. Without it, scientists say, the ecosystem in and around Antarctica could collapse.
But krill is rich in oil brimming in omega-3 fatty acids that Norwegian and Canadian companies sell in pills. The crustaceans are also harvested for special enzymes that can be used by surgeons to clean wounds, even to clean contact lenses.
And the pinkish remains after processing can be used as fish meal, for example to give salmon flesh a richer pink color.
So far, difficulties in processing krill on ships, high fuel prices and the expense of sending fleets to the bottom of the globe has kept a lid on annual catches, which remain far below levels set under a treaty governing Antarctic marine life.
But the economic equation is changing fast, scientists and fishery regulators say because of soaring food prices, falling global fish stocks and better ship-based processing technology.
Within five years, the annual krill catch could jump from just over 100,000 tonnes to several million tonnes.
"The potential of the krill story is that the competition for protein of whatever form is becoming more and more acute," said Denzil Miller, Executive Secretary of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), based in Hobart in southern Australia.
"I think in the next two to three years we are going to see a lot of changes in the way governments and the international community addresses problems of expectation around food security," he said.
He said the commission has created guidelines that managed how and where krill were caught to try to minimize the impact on whales, seals and other predators. The idea is to spread out the catch once it reaches a certain size, particularly in the south Atlantic, where the bulk of the krill fishing occurs.
Failure to do so could have disastrous consequences, he said.
Krill catches are already rising quickly.
"The most recent total notified catch was about 684,000 tonnes for the year 2007/08 (December-November). That's all the countries that have notified -- about 25 vessels from 7 members of the commission and two non-members," Miller said.
While it is still unclear if 684,000 tonnes will be taken during the 2007/08 fishing season, the figure presents a sharp jump from 109,000 tonnes caught the previous season but still way below the total allowed catch of 6 million tonnes set under commission rules.
But new processing techniques by Norwegian firm Aker BioMarine has recently changed the whole krill fishery, scientists and environmentalists say.
The company has created a new way to harvest and process krill continuously. Previously, it was hard to catch and then later process large amounts of krill because the enzymes inside them break down quickly, spoiling much of the catch.
"The upshot of all this is that instead of one fleet catching 100,000 tonnes in a season, one boat can catch 100,000 tonnes in one season," said Gerry Leape, director of the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project.
"All of a sudden if that technology is replicated, you could go from a conservative catch to something that could start being a problem," said Leape, also of the Washington-based Pew Environment Group, which runs the krill project as one of its campaigns.
"We are not against krill fishing. We're just against an explosion of it that will not only jeopardize the krill but also have the impacts on the predators and not take into the necessary changes that will be caused by climate change," he said.
Aker BioMarine says it cooperates with global environmental group WWF to ensure its krill harvesting methods are sustainable.
The company also says it wants to increase production of its krill products, including krill oil and krill meal and is building a high-tech harvesting and processing vessel to go into service in 2009.
The problem with krill, though, is that there are a lot of unknowns. Scientists say no one really knows how abundant krill are, with estimates ranging from about 200 million tonnes to 500 million. And no one really knows the exact numbers of whales, seals and penguins that rely on krill or how climate change will affect those populations or krill numbers.
Krill rely heavily on sea ice for breeding and feeding, particularly during winter months. They eat tiny phytoplankton that thrive on the underside of sea ice but global warming is changing the amount of sea ice down south, particularly around the Antarctic Peninsula where temperatures have risen dramatically in recent years.
In Hobart, scientist Andrew Constable is leading a project to create a management program that will help fishing firms adapt to changing conditions in the Antarctic ecosystem.
"There are a number of different elements to consider with krill. One is the food-web function and being confident the food web can be self-sustaining in the future and not impact on the recovery of whales," he said.
"How do we make sure that the recovery of whales is not going to be jeopardized by krill fishing because they are going to targeting the same locations that the krill fishers will," said Constable, a leader in the Antarctic Marine Ecosystems Program of the Australian Antarctic Division and the Cooperative Research Centre for Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems.
One idea was to learn by a structured fishing approach. "You actually have fishing in one location and not in another and you can compare the two to see what affect the fishery might have.
"And can you arrange the fishery in such a way that you have a mosaic of areas where they fish and a mosaic of areas where they are not fishing and you measure a few key parameters in each of those areas. You can then start to tease out 'this is how we think the system works'," Constable said.
And on top of all that, scientists needed to know what impact climate change will have. "That's another reason I think we need areas which are closed to fishing so we can tease out what the effects of climate change might be from the effects of fishing."
Krill expert Steve Nicol said it was crucial for any management tool to be very conservative.
"When you calculate how much krill it's safe to take, you put an awful lot of precaution in every aspect of the modeling you use to do it," said Nicol, program leader of the Southern Ocean Ecosystems Group at the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart.
He also said with grain prices rising, krill could soon become economic to catch as fish meal.
"The supply of fish meal has gone right down, so you are actually getting a double-whammy on fish meal and the cost of what people are prepared to pay for good-quality fish meal is going up all the time.
"At some point it's going to become economic to go fishing for krill just as a fish meal product."
Miller said krill was already part of the bigger picture of global food security and that a robust management system was crucial for Antarctica's future.
"We've got to get this one right, because if we don't there's a whole lot of dominoes that follow afterwards that just looks too horrendous to contemplate," Miller said.
Editing by Megan Goldin