Australian scientists will today embark on a voyage into the ice for a mission that will test both new technology and our ability to keep Antarctica COVID-free.
- Commercial krill fishing in Antarctica has returned to a 30-year high
- Scientists hope to measure the impact of hauls as fishers eye expansion of their fishing grounds
- The crew is taking precautions to ensure no coronavirus is spread during the voyage
The primary aim of the two-month voyage is to measure the amount of krill in Australia’s Antarctic region as demand for commercial fishing rises.
A total of 20 scientists from five teams will use groundbreaking equipment to measure the shrimp-like crustaceans and the impact more fishing could have on the ecosystem.
It comes amid concern around sustainable fishing in Antarctic waters as catch loads climb to levels not seen in 30 years.
So Kawaguchi from the Australian Antarctic Division is the chief scientist on the voyage, which is operated by the CSIRO.
“The area where krill fisheries are currently concentrated, which is the Antarctic Peninsula area, is almost reaching the annual catch limit every year,” he said.
“That means they need to find somewhere else to catch krill.
“The Australian Antarctic Territory used to be one of the fishing grounds in the past. And now fisheries are looking into redeveloping the fisheries again in this area.”
Krill is vital for whales, seals and penguins to feed on but it is also fished for everything from pet food to oils and bait.
It is among the most abundant creatures on the planet, with a total mass similar to that of humans. But as with many things, climate change is threatening to wreak havoc on the population.
The last survey of krill in the Australian-controlled waters was back in 2006 and the scientists are hoping to update the modelling in order to inform new precautionary catch limits.
Data shows total hauls of Antarctic krill fell significantly in the early 1990s, but has begun to creep back up in recent years.
“It’s the right time to make sure this area is responsibly managed to ensure the sustainable use of this wonderful resource without harming the predators that rely on it for their survival,” said Rob King, a krill biologist on the expedition.
New technology. Contentious history
The team of Australian scientists will set off from Hobart aboard the research vessel Investigator, armed with new equipment able to measure krill on the ocean floor.
They will also take a new “swarm study system” that is essentially a series of cameras mounted to a floating frame capable of filming krill schooling around it in 3D.
Previously, scientists have largely been limited to observing krill closer to the ocean surface.
Together, these devices promise to offer a more complete picture of krill than ever before. But equally, they might not work at all.
“It hasn’t been done before, we don’t know if it will work, but this is the first try,” Mr King said.
“[If it works it] will tell us what species they are, what sex they are, what size they are.
Fishing in Antarctic waters has a contentious history, with whales and seals being hunted to worryingly low levels since as far back as the 1700s.
A 2018 report by Greenpeace analysed the movement of krill fishing vessels in the region and found they were increasingly venturing close to penguin colonies and whale feeding grounds.
The report also cited instances of groundings and oil spills and said this posed serious risks for the ecosystem.
Krill fishing in Antarctic waters is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — a regulatory body made up of 25 member countries and the European Union.
Its stated aim is to prioritise sustainability over all else.
“Sustainability of the krill fishery is dependent on the size of the catch relative to the population,” it says on its website.
“Basically, CCAMLR’s approach to managing the krill fishery is to minimise the impact on the ecosystem rather than trying to maximise the size of the fishery.”
The threat of COVID-19 in Antarctica
Despite being an isolated frontier largely untouched by humans, Antarctica lost its status as the only coronavirus-free continent last month.
Chile’s military said dozens of army personnel and civilian contractors had tested positive at its Bernardo O’Higgins base.
At the time, a researcher examining the impact of coronavirus on Antarctica warned the virus could have widespread implications for the continent.
“The detection of cases of COVID-19 in Antarctica will impact upon a range of areas, from planning and logistics of human activity on the continent through to high-level decision-making back home,” the University of Tasmania’s Hanne Nielsen said.
“The presence of COVID-19 in Antarctica also has implications for local wildlife, with the threat of humans transmitting the virus to other species.”
The team aboard the Investigator has no interest in following a similar fate as they venture to the region near the Mawson Research Station.
Everyone on the voyage has spent most of January in quarantine and only those deemed essential for the trip are going.
“I think I can say I’ve never had a more challenging run into a voyage than this one,” Mr King said.
“It’s been a fascinating time.”