Sea Shepherd, the environmental activist group renowned for taking on Japanese whalers in remote waters around Antarctica, has a new target. Its latest campaign is against krill fishing in the Southern Ocean – the crucial food supply for whales, seals and penguins. Only ironically, Sea Shepherd’s demands may actually harm the very protections already in place.
The group has dispatched a vessel to photograph krill fishing in action, hoping to undermine legitimacy of the practice. So far, the campaign has footage of two Chinese vessels, the new, larger Shen Lan and the 1987 vessel, the Long Fa, as well as the Antarctic Endeavour from Chile and the Sejong from South Korea.
But these vessels are there legally, registered with the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources that manages Antarctic waters. CCAMLR has scientists on board many krill vessels – they would have seen the whales feeding around the boats that Sea Shepherd breathlessly reported – and also monitors fishing vessels’ movements remotely. The fishery in each area is closed when a trigger level is caught, with that level informed by the most recent science. The overall trigger level, of one per cent of the total mass, has never been reached.
The Sea Shepherd campaign implies krill fishing is not legitimate, undermining the authority of CCAMLR at a time when China and Russia have been using their veto to push back against its rules. CCAMLR controls are not foolproof – a Russian vessel was caught spoofing its location a few years ago – but Southern Ocean krill was at risk from unregulated fishing before CCAMLR was established.
Sea Shepherd suggests supporters email the Australian Prime Minister and Minister for the Environment urging a vote against increased krill fishing at the next CCAMLR meeting. But if it goes ahead, the proposal that would increase fishing levels based on the latest science would also see extra scientific observation and reduce the intensity of fishing in areas critical for predator species. It will have been developed by the scientific committee of CCAMLR, including Australian scientists, with a precautionary, eco-system approach. Controlled fishing helps keep the industry operating under CCAMLR rules.
Sea Shepherd’s activities are also likely to strengthen the influence of the Chinese fishing industry on China’s Antarctic policy. The industry can be expected to portray itself domestically as a Chinese national asset resisting Australian interference. They are likely to imply Sea Shepherd is an Australian proxy by misrepresenting its collaboration with the Bob Brown Foundation and the vessel’s funding by Australian individuals. Australian diplomats will have to spend time pointing out that Sea Shepherd is independent of the government, distracting from the push for an East Antarctic Marine Protected Area.
Sea Shepherd members should reflect on the ending of Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. Their dangerous harassment of the Japanese vessels only strengthened the national standing of the industry in Japan. It was largely the cost of subsidies and lack of any economic justification for the industry that ended Japanese whaling in southern waters.
The Chinese krill fishing industry also receives subsidies. China’s national government says it now only gives funds to fishing vessels so they can meet fishery organisations’ monitoring and regulatory requirements. But CCAMLR’s rules mean these subsidies are substantial. It would be cheaper to buy from South American krill fishers, but concern over food security and jobs results in subsidies that allow Chinese vessels to make the long journey south and back. Krill boats also benefit from competition between coastal Chinese cities and provinces for economic growth from the krill industry ashore, and from subsidies for Chinese shipbuilding.
Sea Shepherd might have more influence researching the economics of Chinese krill fishing and pointing out it isn’t “high quality growth”, using the term favoured by China’s Xi Jinping for real rather than subsidised economic activity. The industry may already be under scrutiny at home: construction of the sister ship to the Shen Lan has been delayed and various other krill-related plans shelved.
Sea Shepherd could also press for more money for Australian research into algae, pest species and food waste as cheaper alternatives to krill for aquaculture feed for the fast-growing salmon industry, as well as for pet food and omega-3 oil.
But these tasks don’t have the swashbuckling appeal of sailing the Southern Ocean. It would be a pity if derring-do unhelpfully strengthened Chinese opposition to conservation of Antarctica or risked international support for scientifically based protection of krill – to the detriment of the whales, seals and penguins Sea Shepherd wants to help.