Andrew Sharpless – CEO of Oceana

CEO of Oceana, graduate of Harvard Law School, and the London School of Economics. “All we can do right now is slow down the pace of destruction of the ocean, but once we build the constituency, we can win the changes that  will keep the ocean and its wildlife alive forever.”

Q. Krill is very important to the overall food chain of the ocean.  Can you briefly explain what krill is, why it’s so important, and what Oceana and others are doing to help protect krill?

A. Krill are small, shrimp-like crustaceans. There are 85 species of krill, and they are present in all of the world’s oceans, and are particularly abundant in the Southern Ocean.  Krill have light emitting organs called ‘photophores’ that make them glow in the dark; swarms of krill at night or in the dark ocean depths make impressive swirling light displays.  The largest krill, the Antarctic krill, is thought to live up to 11 years old.  Ocean wildlife eats between 150 and 300 million metric tons of krill each year.

Many seabirds, whales, and fish rely on krill as an integral part of their diets.  Wild salmon eat krill; it is what makes their meat healthy and pink.  The blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived, feeds exclusively on tiny krill.  Remember the March of the Penguins?  Those emperor penguins march hundreds of miles every year . . . to eat krill. Their survival, as with the survival of many marine species, is directly linked to the abundance of krill.

Fish farms also use krill for food.  In particular, salmon farms want to use krill to avoid injecting red dyes into farmed salmon to mimic the color of wild salmon meat.  Harvesting krill to feed farmed fish takes away krill to feed wild fish, seabirds, and whales.  The results could be catastrophic for the marine food web.  Krill are a key component of the ocean ecosystem.  If krill are suddenly removed, the marine food web is severely disrupted.  A few summers ago, unusual weather resulted in low krill populations in the Pacific, and thousands of starved, dead seabirds washed up on Oregon, Washington and California beaches.  This tragic event underscores the delicate balance between krill and the health of our oceans.  We can’t change the weather but we can prevent the commercial use of krill at the expense of fish, birds and whales.

In 2009, federal policy makers banned all fishing for krill in U.S. Pacific waters of California, Oregon and Washington after campaigning led by Oceana and others with strong support from scientists, conservationists, fishermen, coastal businesses and local communities.  But we still have more work to do.  Over fishing of krill and other prey species is now causing food shortages in the ocean, further devastating ocean ecosystems. Oceana believes the following critical steps need to be taken immediately to protect krill and other prey fish:

A.) No new fisheries for prey.  A moratorium on the establishment of new fisheries for prey fish is an important first step to protecting prey. The banning of new prey fisheries, like krill, safeguards against potential ecosystem collapses that could arise through over fishing.

B.) Set conservative limits for prey fisheries in cases where fisheries already exist, setting conservative catch limits is an important component of ecosystem-based management.  Conservative catch limits allow populations to recover to healthy levels and can be used to plan for potential losses due to climate change and other threats.

C.) Prioritize uses for prey.  When setting conservative catch levels, managers should specifically keep the needs of the entire ecosystem in mind.  This includes allocating a portion of prey resources to predators prior to setting catch limits for fisheries.  Fish caught should also be prioritized for direct human consumption rather than as a fuel for aquaculture or other industrial uses.

Q. Preventing mercury from entering into our environment is also a vital ocean issue, especially to Oceana.  Can you elaborate on this?

A. Mercury released to the environment from industrial sources ends up in our oceans, contaminating seafood.  Because it builds up in wildlife through a process called bioaccumulation, animals high on the food chain carry the most mercury.  Many of the fish we eat, such as tuna and swordfish, are close to the top of the marine food chain and thus contain higher levels of mercury.

People exposed to high levels of mercury in fish can experience health effects, such as delayed neurological development in children.  Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have advised women of childbearing age and children not to eat certain types of fish due to high levels of mercury.

Elevated mercury levels are also being found in wildlife, like polar bears, whales and sharks. Most people remain unaware that a small subset of the chlorine industry makes a major – and completely preventable – contribution to the global mercury crisis.  A handful of chlorine plants still use mercury in the chlorine manufacturing process.  Not only has newer, mercury-free technology been around for  decades, but over 100 factories globally have switched to the modern technology because of environmental reasons as well as increased energy savings.

Oceana’s campaign to stop seafood contamination is working to convince grocery stores to post the FDA’s mercury advice and to convince the remaining chlorine plants who use mercury to convert to mercury-free technology.  Since the campaign began, hundreds of grocery stores have started posting the advice and several chlorine factories have closed or converted.

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