The Ethics of Krill Oil and Protein Supplements

I have long been concerned about the fate of whales who dependent upon krill as their primary food source as human harvesting of these small, shrimp-like creatures for livestock feed, fish farming and human consumption intensifies, and krill oils gain world wide popularity as a nutritional supplement. These are phospholipid-enriched oils, a source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Krill make up one of the largest and least contaminated biomass of any animal species on the planet, and the krill fishing industry see it as a renewable resource. National Geographic’s internet entry on the 2 inch long Antarctic krill states: “Simply put, without krill, most of the life forms in the Antarctic would disappear. Alarmingly, there are recent studies that show Antarctic krill stocks may have dropped by 80 percent since the 1970s. Scientists attribute these declines in part to ice cover loss caused by global warming. This ice loss removes a primary source of food for krill: ice-algae.”

These tiny crustaceans are the primary food source for a variety of fish, birds, and many filter-feeding whale species, the so called baleen whales that inhabit the Arctic and Antarctic, including the endangered blue whale and humpback whale, as well as the minke, fin and sei whales. These whales also feed on “zooplankton” which includes tiny marine animals such as copepods and rotifers, as well as the larval stages of larger fish and crustaceans (including krill larvae), which feed on phytoplankton. Human harvesting of krill, along with zooplankton and other coincidental “by-catch” may soon become the equivalent of unregulated ocean mining and oil exploration, endangering the marine ecology and primary food source for the whales.

According to a March 16, 2012 article in SeaFood Business, (, it is only a matter of time before China becomes the largest player in the South Antarctic krill fishery. This article notes that:

“So far it is too early in the fishing season to know how much they have caught — seasons run from 1 December to 30 November of the following year — but they are aiming for 8,000 to 12,000 metric tons of various krill products such as, but not limited to, whole round frozen krill, krill meal and peeled krill meats, subject to weather and resource conditions.

China’s first Antarctic Ocean Living Resources’ Development and Utilization Project, “Rapid Separation of Antarctic Krill and Key Technology of Deep Processing” got underway in Dalian on 16 March last year. In terms of current catch effort, the South Antarctic krill industry remains concentrated in Norwegian hands, although companies from South Korea are still very much active in the fishery.

Krill catches have averaged 170,000 metric tons for the last three seasons (200809, 200910 and 201011), although the 2011 harvest was below that of 2010. If projects currently planned for 2013 and 2014 come to fruition, the overall catch could increase by at least 55 percent, reaching close to 300,000 to 350,000 metric tons by 2014”.(330,693 US tons & 385,809 US tons respectively).”

The specter of another ecological catastrophe—the tragedy of the commons— is looming in Antarctica. It is not likely to be averted considering the past failures of international regulations and agreements to minimize ecological damage and loss of biodiversity on land and at sea. In my opinion, conscientious consumers should seek alternative sources of omega 3 oils for themselves and their animal companions rather than contributing to the rapid demise of those marine mammals whose lives are far more dependent on a renewable and robust krill ‘biomass’ than ours. Fish oil contains omega-3s that are distinct from the flax-type omega-3s, predominantly eicosepentenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fish obtain EPA and DHA by eating algae that have the flax-type omega-3s typical of plants. The human body can make DHA from the flax-type omega-3s — but not very efficiently. This prompted researchers to recommend obtaining DHA directly, from fish or fish oil.

For companion animals I recommend Nordic Naturals fish oils flavored for dogs and cats, a company that markets the same oils for human consumption and claims to get supplies from sustainable fisheries. Cheaper farmed salmon oils are generally high in dioxins and PCBs, and I consider, therefore, unsafe. Feeding dogs and cats (who are not allergic to fish) some canned sardine or mackerel can make up for omega 3 dietary deficiencies. Taking supplements of Omega 3 fatty acids does not have the same effect of eating fish. “We think any beneficial effect of omega-3s is quite small,” said the lead author of a recent review, Rajiv Chowdhury, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, “whereas fish comes with a package of many good nutrients and only small amounts of saturated fat.” ( see R. Chowdhury et al Association between fish consumption, long chain omega 3 fatty acids, and risk of cerebrovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2012;345:e6698).

These alternatives aside, the justification for krill harvesting is based primarily on profits and is a tie-in with the factory farming of corn-fed livestock and poultry notoriously deficient in omega 3s and with excess, inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. Consumers of such animal produce, and of prepared and ‘fast’ foods containing or cooked in oils high in omega 6s, need simply to support organic agriculture and if not vegan, consume only produce from free-range, grass fed animals. There are lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids in cattle (and sheep) fed only on grass compared to grain-fed beef.( For details of this report, “What’s Your Beef” visit ).

There is increasing evidence that meat and poultry from corn/grain fed animals is an emerging public health as well as an economic and environmental concern because of omega 3 dietary deficiency and omega 6 excess. DHA comprises about half of the fatty acids in the brain and is associated with the additional set of health benefits established for omega-3s, notably the protection of the retina, the development of the brain and the prevention of cognitive decline.The high levels of beta-amyloid, (lowered by protective omega 3 fatty acids), leading to amyloid plaque formation in the brains of humans (and cats) suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, may be one of the harmful consequences of what intensively raised farmed animals are being fed today. (Ref: Essential Fatty Acid Education. Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating. Union of Concerned Scientists.

There is now hope on the omega 3 supplement horizon—and relief fro krill and other marine resources— with confirmation that cultures of algae could lead to the wholesale bio-production of omega 3 fatty acids, including beneficial DHA, some of which is already being marketed, as by Nordic naturals with their Algae Omega, and embraced by vegans and other heath-and environment conscincoius consumers. (See: Is Algae DHA As Healthy as Fish Oil DHA? A review of research earlier this year found mostly good news in this vegetarian source. Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor Food Processing 05/22/2012). Dr. Anthony concludes that “For now, DHA from algae seems to be a sustainable, alternative source of DHA that can satisfy both the demands of consumers and the needs of vegetarians, as well as fulfilling most, if not all, the health benefits currently established with omega 3s”.

In summary, I see no justification for opting for krill oil as a healthful supplement, and urge all consumers to join the revolution in agriculture by voting with their pocket books by purchasing organically certified meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products free-range and grass-fed animals. The harvesting of krill as a protein source for human consumption and for livestock and farmed-fish feed should also be questioned on ethical and ecological grounds.

As a species now numbering 7 billion—the greatest biomass of any animal species on Earth, humans must stop multiplying and exploiting wild animal species for commercial and also for medical purposes, regardless of beneficial claims by Western medical science and oriental folk medicine, be they krill, farmed deer for antler velvet, bears for their gall and the last of the tigers for their bones. Curtailing such activities is enlightened self-interest because natural biodiversity and ecosystem integrity are as important to planetary health as to our own health and future well-being.

* Dr Fox is the author of Healing Animals and the Vision of One Health. CreateSpace/ 2011. Website