Krill Seekers

How a tiny crustacean reinvigorated Antarctic research.

Published February 19, 2016

Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.

Go big and then go home: that was the mindset of commercial whalers and sealers in the 19th and 20th centuries, when they hunted the animals to near extinction in the waters off Antarctica. But when those predators vanished, their prey—Antarctic krill—bloomed. And that bloom drew the world’s attention. Despite their teeny stature—Antarctic krill, or Euphausia superba, top out at six centimeters—these crustaceans teem with omega-3 fatty acids, making them valuable as feed for farmed fish and nutritional supplements for humans.

In the 1970s, various national and international data suggested the Southern Ocean may have supported hundreds of millions of tonnes of krill, even before whaling changed the balance of the ecosystem. Many countries sent ships south to investigate the economic promise of a krill fishery. Poland launched two expeditions to western Antarctica in 1976, and in 1977, Poland built the first research base to study krill ecology and help develop a lucrative fishery—the Henryk Arctowski research station, named after a Polish meteorologist and member of the first expedition to spend a winter in Antarctica. Countries such as Peru, Ecuador, and the United States followed Poland, and built bases on the shores of King George Island’s Admiralty Bay.

In 1987, Poland commemorated the Arctowski station’s pioneering research with this stamp, featuring a research vessel, several species of plankton, and the iconic krill. By that time, krill were the largest fishery in the Southern Ocean.

The separate Admiralty Bay bases started collaborating about 20 years ago. “Anything in Antarctica is very expensive, so there’s a … financial pressure to cooperate and share resources, rather than everyone repeating the same set of results,” says Peter Convey, a terrestrial ecologist at the United Kingdom’s British Antarctic Survey.

Today, a handful of research stations stud the coast below King George Island’s hulking glaciers, tackling broad topics, such as climate change. “The land and ocean in and surrounding Antarctica can impact the entire global climate and ocean systems,” Convey says. “If you change Antarctica, you change the rest of the world.”

Others research more local topics. Malgorzata Korczak-Abshire, a Polish biologist working at the Arctowski station, studies invasive species and penguin genetics. “Antarctica is still a place with many secrets,” she says. And we can thank krill for bringing together different nations of researchers, intent on uncovering these mysteries.