Ship On Fire In Antarctica: 97 Saved From Kai Xin; Antarctica At Risk For Environmental Disaster?

By Philip Ross on April 18, 2013 1:15 PM EDT

fire ship antarctica
A Chinese fishing ship that caught fire in the Antarctic on Wednesday highlights a pervasive environmental concern: The overfishing of krill in the Antarctic region. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A crew of 97 people was out fishing for krill in the waters off Antarctica, about 34 miles from Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins research base near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, when the Chinese fishing vessel caught ablaze. AP reports that a nearby Norwegian vessel rescued the 97 members of the fishing boat, Kai Xin, and took them aboard the Juvel.

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Fishing Expedition Gone Awry

Unsure of how much fuel the ship carried, Chilean officials worried about a possible environmental hazard should the ship sink. Chile's air force is flying to the ship today to check on the status of the ship on fire in Antarctica. It's possible that the ship will be towed to Punta Arenas, a harbor near the southern tip of Chile, as long as it doesn't start to sink, according to AP.

While the immediate danger from the ship was a possible oil spill, the disaster highlihts another, more pervasive environmental concern.

Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental group that focuses on environmental issues like global warming, deforestation and overfishing, pointed out that the Chinese fishing ship that caught fire was part of a fleet of 50 other krill fishing vessels. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, authorized the fleet to fish for krill off the Antarctic coast.

"They don't know how the ecosystem might be affected by fishing for krill, which forms part of the foundation for the entire ocean food chain," Milko Schvartzman, a Greenpeace campaigner, told AP.

Are krill being overfished, and is the Antarctic at risk for an environmental disaster?

Krill Fishing On The Rise

Krill, which are tiny shrimp about the size of a paperclip, are the primary food source for many marine mammals like blue whale and seals. According to National Geographic, scientists estimate that the combined weight of all the krill in the Antarctic is more than the total weight of all humans on the planet; some say it's as high as 6 billion tons.

Recent studies show that since the 1970s, Antarctic krill stocks may have declined by 80 percent. This population degradation is attributed mainly to the loss of ice cover due to global warming, as ice-algae is the main food source for krill.

"Simply put, without krill, most of the life forms in the Antarctic would disappear," National Geographic reports.

Environmental Disaster On The Way?

The CCAMLR, which makes annual reviews of fishing areas in the Antarctic, sets catch limits for krill fishing in the areas surrounding Antarctica. CCAMLR's annual catch limit in the Southern Ocean is 3.47 million tons of krill. According to the commission, Krill fishing spiked in the mid-1980s and 1990s, but one study reports that new and efficient fishing techniques has the commercial catch of krill on the rise.

The Guardian reports that fished krill is mainly used as fish-farm feed and to make Omega 3 oil, among other health supplements. The global fish-farming industry is relying more heavily on krill-based fish feed, according to the Nature Publishing Group.

From Nature:

Another worry is the number of fishing vessels being deployed in the Southern Ocean. Norway is now operating three ships, for example, and China is expected to rapidly increase its krill fishing after sending its first vessel this year. "If China starts fishing in a big way, catch will expand rapidly, outstripping our ability to orderly manage it," says Steve Nicol, a marine ecologist with the Australian Antarctic Division in Kingston, Tasmania, who advises the Australian government on krill fisheries.

Could the rise in krill fishing coupled with the ever-increasing demand for krill feed mean an environmental disaster for the Antarctic region? Share your thoughts below.

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