Concentration in Antarctic krill oil production

06 Sep 2017
Antarctic krill

Tharos has developed a chemical-free process to extract oil from fresh krill

Krill oil is the one of the most valuable products obtained from the huge resource of this tiny crustacean (Euphausia superba) living in the Antarctic Ocean. It is used in capsule form as a health supplement, and in the pharmaceutical and aquaculture feed industries. Work is also ongoing to add it to foods as a ‘fortification’ ingredient, reports Andrew Martin.

However, two of the giants in the krill oil sector are combining their resources which may well indicate that all is not well in the krill oil production industry.

In the middle of last month, Norway’s Aker BioMarine Antarctic announced that it had purchased the krill oil inventory and intellectual property (IP) owned by Neptune Technologies & Bioressources of Canada. The deal also includes servicing Neptune customers, so the deal goes beyond IP and stock.

The deal, worth $34 million, signals Neptune’s withdrawal from krill oil production although it will continue to be involved in the krill oil sector via its investment in Acasti Pharma. It will also market soft gel capsules produced by its Solutions Business, in partnership with Aker BioMarine.

Commentating on the purchase, Matts Johansen, CEO of Aker BioMarine, said: “Neptune has made a strategic decision to withdraw as a bulk krill oil supplier, while Aker BioMarine wants to increase investment in the category, so this agreement is a perfect fit for both parties.”

The acquisition will allow Aker BioMarine to increase investments in science and product innovation, sustainable krill-harvesting practices and marketing support for its customers, according to the company.

“Earlier this year, we kicked off the Omega-3 Index Project to bring more awareness to the health risks of low omega-3 levels. We also initiated a study to evaluate the effects of krill oil omega-3s on the world’s toughest army recruits, the US Rangers,” he said.

“These are the types of activities we will continue to move forward with, and now in connection with the NKO brand [developed by Neptune but which will now be integrated into Aker BioMarine],” he added.

“The marriage of these two brands is significant for the krill oil business. We have only just scratched the surface of the potential of krill oil and look forward to bringing NKO into our brand portfolio that we spent a decade building.”

Despite the size of the krill resource in the South Antarctic – it has been estimated at 379 million tonnes – there is still concern about overfishing. According to Dimitri Sclabos, who has worked with krill for the past 30 years; “There is a very fine balance in the ecosystem in the region. Krill are at the bottom of the food chain and a number of other marine species feed on them.”

Average annual catches have almost doubled in the past ten years from 120,000 tonnes in 2000-2009 to 220,000 tonnes from 2010-2017. Chinese involvement alongside large Norwegian trawlers, such as those owned by Aker BioMarine which started fishing for krill in the Antarctic in 2004, have pushed up the total amount of krill caught.

This could be a problem if the commercial catch gets close to or above CCAMLR’s catch limit of around 800,000 tonnes in area FAO area 48 which is the main Antarctic krill fishing region.

CCAMLR (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), which was established in 1982 in response to increasing commercial interest in Antarctic krill, sets TACs for fishing in the South Antarctic. At its annual meeting in October last year its 25 member states agreed to prohibit commercial fishing in much of a 598,000 square mile area in the Ross Sea which covers more than 12% of the Southern Ocean.

In doing so, it created the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). Ironically this MPA does not have much of a krill fishery – if any at all (the MPA is in FAO area 88). Nevertheless, the move is seen as a step in the right direction to conserving marine resources.

“It is good news that CCAMLR acts proactively instead of letting others guide the “conservation conversation”, some not necessarily involved in the Antarctic fishery,” Dimitri Sclabos says.

Since CCAMLR was set up, krill harvesting has been managed in a very precautionary manner. As well as leaving enough krill to ensure there is a healthy breeding population, it is important to ensure that there is enough for predators, including penguins, petrels and seals, all of which feed on krill or on animals which do.

Currently all krill oil is produced on land from either dried krill meal or frozen krill previously manufactured at sea. However, Tharos, a Chilean based consultancy of which Dimitri Sclabos is CEO, has patented a process for extracting the oil at sea on board the catching vessel.

“This revolutionary process is chemical-free unlike oil extraction processes used by all South Antarctic krill operators,” he said. “It extracts the oil directly from raw fresh krill, it is highly cost-efficient for the end-buyer, it maintains krill’s natural and powerful biological constituencies, and leaves no residue in the final product, which is aimed at the human pharmaceutical and health supplement sectors of the market.”

Although not yet in commercial use, the Tharos oil extraction technology is expected to be applied to soon become available.

“We will soon have our first krill oil samples,” Dimitri Sclabos said. “These will be representative of our future commercial-sized operation.”