Sea Shepherd Australia has launched a new campaign to protect a species much smaller than the whales it has generally focused on, but just as important to the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

Krill play a crucial role in the Antarctic food chain, as they are consumed by whales, penguins and various other seabirds. The Southern Ocean is not only cold, but also remote and barren, meaning the vast swarms of 5cm-long crustaceans are the basis of the marine food chain. A single humpback whale, for example, will consume around a tonne, almost exclusively krill, every day.

But now corporate interests have the krill in their sights. The species is the new fad, identified as containing a cheap source of protein, and it has even gained the moniker 'pink gold'.

"It's this boom time in terms of harvesting krill. It's seen as this very cheap protein to feed fish farms, to feed the cattle feedlots, and to feed the supplement market," says Adam Burling, media spokesperson for Sea Shepherd Australia.

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Blackmores Ltd is a giant in the Australian health supplement industry. Its products are also sold in New Zealand. Blackmores has taken to producing omega-3 pills called 'EcoKrill', which, Sea Shepherd asserts, is anything but.

The main ingredient of EcoKrill is provided by factory ships, which place huge hoses in the water and suck the krill up.

Burling says the krill are being "literally taken out of the mouths of whales," and that more than 100,000 tonnes of krill are being caught every year. The species is also facing the challenges of climate change and ocean acidification.

"If they start to be impacted upon, we're going to see it flow through the food chain," adds Burling.

Sea Shepherd Australia is particularly concerned in the way the krill products are being marketed to consumers. Burling says Blackmore's EcoKrill website contains scenes of the Antarctic and penguins, as if to imply that the usage of krill is environmentally friendly. Despite being certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, he says that in fact it is one of the most broadly destructive activities humanity can carry out in the Southern Ocean.

Sea Shepherd managing director Jeff Hansen says the knock-on effects of krill harvesting are already noticeable.

"From the beaches off Washington state, USA to the west coast of Australia, strandings of humpback whales are on the increase and the main finding is that they are malnourished, in other words, they are not getting enough food and are starving. It's time that Blackmores and other companies ceased taking the food from the whale's mouth and stopped selling all krill products immediately."

Sea Shepherd are asking consumers to boycott products containing krill, particularly those of Blackmores, and to send a message to Blackmores' CEO to end use of krill in their products: http://www.seashepherd.org.au/blackmorespetition/
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