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August 17, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Krill is cool and what it can tell us about our lives

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Krill is not the most glamorous of the world’s creatures. Rarely does it front magazines, or inspire documentaries—these spots tend to be dominated by the lion, the polar bears or the shark, which seems to have 24/7 coverage on Animal Planet.

Krill are small shrimp-like creatures, measuring about five centimetres long. They feed on phytoplankton (single-celled plants), and in turn are fed upon by hundreds of different animals. Despite the number of things trying to eat them, they can live for up to ten years.

There are also a lot of them. Antarctic krill congregations during certain times of the year are so large that they can be seen from space.

Yet although interesting to budding marine biologists, the krill’s bio is not the most thrilling in the animal encyclopaedia. What is incredible, though, is that without krill, most forms of life in the Antarctic, and indeed in many of the Earth’s marine ecosystems, would collapse. This is because krill make up a crucial part of the marine food chain. They are the staple food in the diet of many marine animals, including whales, fish and birds.

However, because krill are such unprepossessing creatures, they barely register on our radars, despite the vital ecosystem role they fill. And because of this, they are beginning to struggle to survive. Climate change is melting the ice on which grow ice algae, a source of food for krill and they are also being over-exploited by the fishing industry.

That may come as a surprise, given that krill aren’t exactly a big seller in the fish department of the supermarket. But krill, are used to feed farmed fish and seafood, and as the aquaculture industry grows, so does the threat to krill.

Not only that, but krill are widely used in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly to produce fish oil. This being the supplement we take to make ourselves smarter. It would appear we need it to help us realise that we are endangering the survival of the world’s marine ecosystems in order to take a non-essential supplement.

So what to do about it? We could introduce a new treaty outlining how the international community should use the krill fisheries. Or we as consumers could refuse to buy products containing krill. And these would be fantastic things, and could quite possibly solve the issue. But then we would realise that there is a different version of these problems somewhere else, be it virgin rainforest in Indonesia being cut down to produce the paper we print circulars on, or rich countries selling their rubbish to Pacific Islands who need the money.

It’s a matter of taking a step back and examining the cause behind these symptoms that are manifesting themselves as serious problems with the way society is working.

That cause is the mode of thinking we have developed that informs how we have constructed society and the economy. This thinking looks through a very narrow lens of short-term costs versus short-term gains. It also values economic profit above anything else, but also puts a falsely low economic cost on environmental, social and cultural harm caused by economic activity.

Instead we need a way of looking at and thinking about things that takes into account all the essential parts of life: the four pillars of sustainability—society, culture, the environment and the economy.

Such thinking is beginning to find its feet in Aotearoa New Zealand. Regional councils, for example, must take into account the four pillars of sustainability when writing their long term council community plans.

It is also being used to build a new approach to education—Education For Sustainability (EFS). EFS involves teaching in a way that increases students’, teachers’ and the community’s ability to create a more sustainable society. The key aspects of EFS don’t require huge changes or the teaching of theory so much as a way of thinking that centres around: co-operation, seeing the links, inquiry-based learning and a future-focused thought process. These being the skills we need to begin making better decisions about how we approach the world around us.

EFS principles have been used to underpin the new New Zealand Curriculum, which is a very positive step, but one that needs to be reflected in universities and tertiary institutions as well.

Tertiary institutions seem all too quick to jump to the defence that they cannot push such defined teaching principles, because it impacts on the holy grail principle of academic freedom, upon which tertiary institutions pride themselves. But tertiary institutions are also one of the places society looks to for leadership and ideas about how to tackle the issues facing us, and have a responsibility to provide such ideas and leadership. Fobbing such responsibilities off with the excuse of it impinging upon academic freedom is not good enough. The world of tertiary education has adapted to new ways of teaching in the past and must to do so again now by embracing the principles of EFS.

Luckily, there are a few hardy souls out there, including at Victoria, who are pushing for this. They can see that as a teaching and research institution, Victoria and other tertiary institutions have a crucial role to play in developing knowledge around sustainability issues, and disseminating this to as many people as possible through sharing and teaching. But they need the support of the management and academic leadership of Victoria, or Aotearoa New Zealand is going to be left behind intellectually and find itself ill-equipped to face the biggest challenges we have ever faced.

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  1. Lauren says:

    umm, are you relly that concerned about krill. I know that thay are important and all, but you are over exaggerating. I am doing a research paper on krill and there are about 500 million tons of krill in the southern ocean alone. I don’t think they will go extinct any time soon.

  2. lauren says:

    *really

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