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Krill – a little crustacean with big potential

Norwegian company Aker BioMarine, the world’s largest harvester of krill, recently received a grant that may further the potential for this nutritional wonder.

The origin of the word krill comes from Norwegian for “young fish”. These days it is the common term for euphausiids, a family of pelagic marine crustaceans found throughout the world. Aker BioMarine harvests the six-centimetre long Antarctic krill, one of the biggest of 85 krill species. The company accounts for 50,000 tonnes out of the total 100,000-150,000 tonnes of krill harvested globally each year.

Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) is one of the bigger species of krill, growing to a maximum size of 6.5 cm and weighing up to 2 grams. Oil derived from krill is rich in Omega-3 phospholipids and the antioxidant astaxanthin, both recognized for their health-promoting benefits.
© Aker BioMarine

The list does not end there. Research has found Omega-3 fatty acids can play a role in treating lifestyle diseases, such as rheumatism, several neurological dysfunctions, including schizophrenia and dyslexia. Moreover, krill oil is a powerful inflammation-reducing antioxidant and contains enzymes with potential medical applications for prevention of graft failures and transplant rejections.

Good for Your Heart

The major health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids from marine sources are cardiovascular. A study found a 67% reduction in mortality rate subsequent to heart attack among men who ate fish regularly. Omega-3 has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and the risk of blood clots and fatty deposits in the blood vessels.

“(Omega-3) is one of the best documented dietary supplements,” said Mats Johansen, Aker BioMarine Executive Vice President of Marketing.

The Norwegian Research Council awarded the company a three-year NOK 8 million research grant in December 2009 to continue its ambitious documentation of Superba Krill. It was one of five recipients of the User-driven Innovation Projects. The grant will be used to study the health benefits, such as heart, brain, eye and joint, on both humans and animals.

A substantial part of the grant will be used in collaboration with the National Hospital in Norway in Oslo where it will conduct a clinical trial investigating krill oil’s potential impact on risk factors for development of cardiovascular diseases. The company has also established a strong connection with Haukelund Unversity Hospital in Bergen, where it will investigate potential health benefits of krill oil on the central nervous system (brain), the cardiovascular system and fat metabolism in various experimental in vitro and animal models.

“We can’t say we will treat your disease with krill oil, but we have high expectations on identifying measurable effects that indicate future human health benefits,” said Dr. Hogne Vik, Aker BioMarine Executive Vice President of Documentation.

One of the advantages over fish-based Omega-3 is that Omega-3 from krill is more effectively taken up by the cells in the body. Krill oil also blends better in water than fish oil and can be used in smaller amounts to get the same effect. This lends itself to being a good functional ingredient in food, for example, bread. And because krill is low on the marine food chain and harvested in the clean waters of the Antarctic, it is free of environmental toxins such as heavy metals and PCBs.

But krill is not just beneficial to humans. It can be used to grow bigger fish. Recent studies by Aker BioMarine found that Qrill, Aker BioMarine’s krill-based feed ingredient for the aquaculture industry, resulted in a 40% better growth rate for salmon and 15% increase for shrimps. That means for an investment of NOK 0.20 of Qrill per kilogram of feed ingredient, salmon farmers recoup approximately NOK 2 extra because the salmon put on more weight due to a more efficient utilization of the feed, according to Hallvard Muri, Aker BioMarine Chief executive.

Aker BioMarine’s krill factory trawler Saga Sea.
© Aker BioMarine

Krill harvesting is regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the treaty-based organization responsible for preserving Antarctic resources. The current global catch of 100,000-150,000 tonnes is well below the catch limit of 4 million tonnes set by CCAMLR.

Sustainably Harvested

Aker BioMarine is now working on an environmental certification of Qrill through the Marine Stewardship Council, one the world’s leading certification and ecolabelling programs for sustainable seafood.

Aker BioMarine cooperates closely with CCAMLR and the WWF to protect the ecosystem and environment. It specifically works with WWF to promote sustainable management of marine resources in Norwegian waters and oceans around the world and ensure harvests of krill and whiting by Aker companies are consistent with sustainable practices.

The company has developed a new harvesting technology called EcoHarvesting, which harvests krill in a commercially viable and environmentally sound way. Traditional trawling methods are unsuitable because the krill contains highly digestive enzymes and basically self-destructs before it can be processed. Aker’s EcoHarvesting fishing system allows the fishing net to stay under water during the entire operation. The krill is pumped up through a hose live onto the vessel. As a result, the krill is still alive when entering the deck of the boat and has more fat and oil when it is processed. EcoHarvesting also avoids unwanted by-catch of fish and seals.

The company is currently seeking environmental certification with the Marine Stewardship Council for its Antarctic krill operations with EcoHarvesting trawling technology.