20 Oct 2022


Krill in the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Sea deliver carbon storage services worth an estimated US$15.2 billion per year, according to a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

By contrast, the annual worth of the Antarctic krill fishery is 60 times lower at about US$0.25 billion.

As the Antarctic warms, growing evidence shows that krill play an increasingly important role in the global carbon cycle.

Today’s report shows the need to prioritise improved protection of Antarctic krill rather than expanded industrial harvesting.

“Antarctic krill are worth more to nature and people left in the ocean than removed,” said Emily Grilly, WWF’s Antarctic Conservation Manager.

WWF’s report, Antarctic krill: Powerhouse of the Southern Ocean, examined the potential carbon storage capacity of krill in the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Sea.

Antarctic krill send carbon to the deep through the sinking of their faeces and by moulting their exoskeletons.

The carbon storage of their faecal pellets is valued at US$8.6 billion and the shedding of exoskeletons an additional US$6.6 billion – a total of US$15.2 billion per year.

This is estimated to equal the sinking of 23 megatonnes of carbon annually.

Humpback whale breaching in the Gerlache Strait= Antarctica= Polar Regions
© National Geographic Creative / Robert Harding Picture Library / WWF

“We know krill are central to the Southern Ocean food web – whales, penguins, seals and other marine species depend on krill for their survival,” Ms Grilly said.

“Now we’re learning about the potential role krill play in our climate."

“Krill are individually small but collectively mighty. That certainly applies to their ability to store carbon and help maintain stable climatic conditions that are beneficial for humanity,” she said.

The threat to krill and wildlife from fishing

A large-scale commercial krill fishery is managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

WWF’s report further provides a comprehensive update on the status of the krill fishery and an overview of current issues with its management.

Krill are harvested to make aquaculture feed, livestock and pet feed, and nutraceutical supplements for human consumption.

The fishery is growing and increasingly targets the same regions in the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Sea where the densest krill swarms form.

But it’s this same concentration of krill that attracts whales, seals, penguins and birds so fishing activity regularly overlaps with foraging wildlife.

In 2021 three dead humpback whales were removed from krill nets in Antarctica and in January 2022 another humpback became entangled and died in a krill net in the region.

“WWF is calling for improved, internationally binding protection measures for krill populations via increased Marine Protected Areas and strengthened management regulations,” said Ms Grilly.

“Any decisions affecting Antarctic krill should now consider their value to society as storers of huge amounts of carbon."

“Management of the krill fishery should be strengthened to conserve Antarctic krill and krill predators,” she said.

A new krill fishery management framework as well as three proposals to establish MPAs, including one in the Antarctic Peninsula, will be considered for adoption by CCAMLR.

The 41st meeting of CCAMLR will be held in Hobart running from 24 October to 4 November.

Antarctic krill graphic
© WWF-Australia