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Man versus whales

Simon Cameron
Monday, January 07, 2013

When did humans decide consuming whale food was a good idea? That it was some sort of multi-vitamin cure-all that will reduce everything from blood pressure to cholesterol; help alleviate PMS or add muscle strength; improve cognitive function and brain health.

Is there anything krill oil supplements can't do?

Fish oil supplements have been trendy for quite a while now because of the belief omega-3 fatty acids were beneficial particularly in lowering blood pressure — thus benefiting the heart. This despite the fact a recent extensive study found they actually may have no more benefit than a placebo in preventing death or serious cardiovascular disease.

And according to British scientist and nutrition expert Tom Sanders, from Kings College in London, the benefits of fish-oil supplements are over-rated.

"Rather than a passport to good health, fish-oil pills are more like snake oil," he wrote. "I've been researching the health benefits of fish and fish-oil supplements, which contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, for more than 30 years.

"What I have found is that, although fish-oil supplements have a role to play for some people, they have been over-hyped and over-sold."

Now krill oil is growing in popularity, reportedly because it has similar benefits to fish oil but is even more effective.

But is it really, and is fishing the Southern Ocean for tonnes of krill per year for use in supplements — as well as for fishmeal — more destructive than the positives provide?

Now, with a growing market for krill supplements, what is the future for this tiny crustacean which remains the main diet for whales, penguins, seals, squid and other fish?

In 2010, for the first time, part of the Antarctic krill fishery had to be closed because the catch limit was reached. Quotas continue to grow yet scientific studies to determine what effects, if any, fishing is having on the population have not been undertaken and there remains uncertainly as to the future of krill numbers.

Humans really don't have a good track record in showing restraint, particularly when it comes to hunting. Massive over-fishing is having detrimental effects in many parts of the world and has done for decades. When profit is the over-riding factor, the chances of greed and vested interests muddying the waters grow.

Currently the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society — a group of environmentalists from across the world — are traversing waters in the Antarctic in an attempt to stop Japanese whalers from harpooning more than 1000 whales during their annual hunt.

While the Japanese say they are only hunting their quota for scientific reasons, the most dubious of claims, there is little doubt the whale meat is used for human consumption. But do the Japanese need whale meat in order to survive? Likewise, do any of us really need fish or krill oil to survive?

It's a noble mission by the Sea Shepherd's crew. Anyone who has seen how the whales are slaughtered, the length of time it takes for them to die and undoubtedly the suffering that goes with it, would find it hard to disagree.

And all the while the same Antarctic waters which have become a battleground in defence of the whales are being harvested for krill — the staple diet of the very animal in the firing line.

But for how long? What if our estimates of quotas end up being wrong? How can we really know what impact we are having on krill numbers when there is no scientific data available?

It just doesn't seem to make sense. Protecting the whales is one thing, but when are we going to start protecting their food source?

* Simon Cameron is a journalist of more than 20 years for various newspapers in Victoria, the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia, Simon Cameron is currently a sub-editor for NewsCentral in SA. He has never been accused of not having an opinion.

The opinions expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

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