Out of place: Supertrawlers in Antarctica

Like a mirror, the waters of Gerlache Strait reflect the towering mountains. The glassy surface is broken only by rafts of gentoo penguins dipping in and out of the water as they swim.

by Alistair Allan
by Alistair AllanMarine and Antarctic Campaigner
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Like a mirror, the waters of Gerlache Strait reflect the towering mountains. The glassy surface is broken only by rafts of gentoo penguins dipping in and out of the water as they swim. In the distance, a group of humpback whales arch their backs and lift their tails right up out of the water, as they dive for the krill below the surface.

This is the Antarctic peninsula and it can only be described as a tranquil, frozen paradise.

Unbelievably, in late March, this is where the krill supertrawler fleet comes. They trawl right through these narrow straits and channels. In these idyllic and breathtaking bays and coves, these industrial machines rumble and thunder, pulling krill out of this wild place.

Photo: Alistair Allan

The entire area we are sailing in now is a proposed Marine Protected Area. You can see why. However, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic and Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has been unable to reach a consensus to ratify the proposal to protect this amazing area.

CCAMLR is made up of 27 member states and another 10 acceding states. It was designed to be a convention that, as the name suggests, was focused on the conservation of Antarctic marine animals.  However, CCAMLR now spends more and more of its time as the regulating body for the Antarctic fisheries.

One important feature of CCAMLR is that any decisions must be unanimous. This is why I now find myself sailing in a spectacular patch of ocean, which CCAMLR has failed to protect.

Photo: Kerstin Langenberger

This is the wider story of Antarctica in general. This voyage has reminded me just how incredible this frozen continent at the end of the world is. It is a bastion of life and miracles.

From the tiny snow petrels that fly next to the wheelhouse windows in the wild Southern Ocean, leaving you marvelling how such a small and fragile bird can withstand such conditions, to the serene and awe-inspiring straits with a pod of orcas swimming by our ship, I have been humbled and floored, once again, by Antarctica.

Photo: Snow Petrel by Edin Whitehead

The challenges that Antarctica and the animals that call it home are huge. Climate change, industrial fishing, tourism, and geopolitics all pose threats.

Krill fishing is what we came to document and expose on this voyage because it threatens the very foundation of the Antarctic ecosystem.

What we saw was supertrawlers fishing right through hundreds of feeding fin whales. We saw penguins desperately swimming to get out of the way of their nets. We saw what can only be described as a conflict between the natural world and industrial trawlers.

This conflict exists, in this fragile ecosystem at the end of the world, to make products we do not need. This is what confronts me the most about this fishery. The whole time I was with the fleet, it was the one thought I couldn’t get out of my mind. Why were these vessels here at all? They are catching the keystone species of Antarctica for pet food, fish farm feed and supposed health products in the form of krill oil.

Photo: Alistair Allan

These products end up on supermarket and chemist shelves all around the world. I can guarantee that wherever you are reading this, Antarctic krill isn’t far from you.

This shouldn’t be the case. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean deserve total protection, not supertrawlers plundering the ecosystem.

As we head home, it is with total resolve to see an end to krill fishing.

I hope that you feel the same too.

Our campaign is just beginning, and you can join the fight to protect Antarctica.

Together, we can make a difference for the animals that call this frozen world home.

For Antarctica,