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Licence to krill: when conservationists and corporates cosy up

The fundraising practices of WWF, a big player with a $24 million annual domestic turnover, is under question. Crikey examines WWF’s corporate links.

A conservationist sends out a fake press release about a highly polluting coal development; national opprobrium follows. But where’s the outcry when a conservation group cosies up to business, allowing the use of its logo on a product some experts say is environmentally harmful in return for an undisclosed sum?

There have long been rumblings within the green movement about the fundraising practices of WWF, a big international player which bills itself as “the largest conservation organisation in Australia” (it turned over $24 million domestically last year). The latest case involves a microscopic Antarctic beast, a vitamin giant and a mystery sack of cash.

WWF-Australia signed a three-year deal with health product purveyors Blackmores in late 2012 to promote its Eco Krill Oil, which is made from krill taken from Antarctic waters. The oil is said to provide “omega-3s for brain, heart and eye health”. Blackmores gets to use the WWF logo on its krill oil, in exchange for Blackmores paying WWF an amount of money which neither party will reveal publicly.

The trade is substantial; WWF says more then 20 million capsules of krill oil are chugged down in Australia each year, worth more than $15 million.

There are other brands of krill oil around, but only Blackmores can use the WWF logo. The reason? Blackmores’ krill oil secured Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, which is supposed to indicate that seafood is sustainable. Such certification is controversial.

Krill is not a threatened species. But it is at the bottom of the food chain — seals, penguins, whales and plenty of other species depend on it — and it is taken from the pristine Southern Ocean. Blackmores argues the krill is found in “great abundance”, and says the company uses a “gentle harvesting” trawling technique which reduces bycatch of fish, seabirds and seals.

MSC agreed to certify Blackmores on the grounds that krill stock (and the wider ecosystem) could sustain the harvesting, and the management of the harvesting was acceptable. Environmental groups like Pew, Greenpeace and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) lodged objections during the assessment. WWF raised some concerns about krill harvesting, but was more muted than the other conservation groups — and did not join them in lodging an official objection to the certification.

Dr Cat Dorey, co-ordinator of Greenpeace’s Sustainable Seafood Programme, says fisherman shouldn’t be going to one of the earth’s last wild places to “hoover up a species that is a key part of the whole food chain”. Little was known of the impact of climate change on krill. “We should just leave krill alone,” Dorey told Crikey. 

It’s is an extreme example of fishing down the food chain — we’ve fished everything else so now we have to travel to the far ends of the earth to one of the most sensitive unspoilt ecosystems to fish something we can’t even eat ourselves.”

Dr Michael Harte, national manager of WWF Australia’s marine section, defends the Blackmores deal, telling Crikey that MSC certification represents “the highest standard of sustainability in seafood, fish and krill oil products”. Krill is highly important to the Antarctic marine ecosystem, and the growing demand for krill products could risk that ecosystem; best-practice management is required.

We believe that krill, like any other fishery, can be managed sustainably,” Harte said. “Blackmores should be congratulated for seeking out MSC certified krill for their krill oil product. It is a fantastic example of best practice in action.”

The Blackmores/WWF deal is rumoured to be worth more than $100,000, but it’s a closely guarded secret. ”WWF does not disclose the specific income from each of our corporate partners,” Harte said.

The vitamin giant wouldn’t say either. “The licence fee is commercial in confidence, which is standard policy for WWF-Australia’s partnerships and Blackmores are respectful of this,” the company said in a statement.

This is standard practice for WWF, which has had business at its heart since its Australian arm was established with the help of $20,500 in corporate donations back in 1978. According to the 2012 annual report, 10% of its income came from corporates, or $2.42 million. It’s not disclosed which corporates donate or how much, but the annual report talks glowingly of Blackmores, Coles, John West, Tassal, the Coca-Cola Foundation, palm oil companies, Bunnings, Kimberly-Clark Australia, McDonald’s and beef companies JBS, Teys, and Merck.

And that income didn’t all go to saving tigers. Last year, WWF spent more on fundraising than it did on domestic conservation programs. The NGO spent $7.9 million on domestic programs, $1.4 million on “community education” and $8.6 million on “fundraising costs”. A spokesman says fundraising costs include direct mail, TV ads, telemarketing, face-to-face activities and online engagement.  (WWF says it usually aims for a 65:35 split on conservation to fundraising spend, but has ramped up the fundraising temporarily.)

Excerpt from 2012 WWF Australia annual report

Asked if WWF is compromising its environmental integrity in order to secure donations from corporates, Harte says working with business and industry is key to a sustainable future. Partnerships with the most influential buyers of key commodities drive real change and could transform the whole supply chain, he says.

But conservationists working for other NGOs expressed disquiet to Crikey. WWF is seen within the sector as being the NGO that works most closely with business, and critics accuse it of excusing or masking some corporates’ unimpressive environmental practices.

One insider says when environmental groups accept funding from business, it could compromise the group’s capacity for clear-eyed critique. Another says while WWF in Australia is fairly good at remaining uncompromised, doing cash deals with corporates is a problem; the staffer claims some companies sign deals with WWF and then used them to hide behind, declining to work with other NGOs which have tougher conservation demands.

17
  • 1
    Andrew Knott
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    What a beat up…

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ve long wondered (or since they’ve been able to encapsulate them at least), “With their ability to “harvest” such large amounts, where would that “excess” they’re taking now, to supplement our “needs”, have gone if not to these harvesters/nets? Would they have gone to waste and just died, or to other parts of the natural food-chain, to feed other marine life in a healthy marine environment?”

    Same way as the sardine is headed, after the more commercial wild tuna and other species being overfished, beyond sustainable levels?

  • 3
    JackAubrey
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    klewso
    I think they would have been eaten by all the whales that aren’t there anymore, so they are probably “spare” krill and we would be up to belly-buttons in the stuff (or fast breeding smaller whales) if it weren’t for the harvest.

    That “gentle harvesting” trawling technique (in the link) sounds a lot like the “supertrawler” proposal we were supposed to be so upset about a few months ago. Gosh this stuff is confusing.

  • 4
    Lady White Peace
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Not happy WWF Really NOT HAPPY… you now lose my $20 per month donation.
    Blackmore’s you have lost your credibility, and my business. Money before Morals…is the depressing bottom line for this lot.

  • 5
    Microseris
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Is there a resource left on the planet humans won’t exploit to the detriment of other species?

  • 6
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Microseris, the only one I can think of which doesn’t do much damage to other species is soylent green. And if you have any memory left you might recall that soylent green was said at the time to be made from plankton, which, if not exactly ‘krill’ is probably near enough in the marketing stakes (“gentle harvesting”) to be what Blackmores is aiming for. Any connection with the Baby Booming business in Antarctic cruise ship tourism? They do come home again don’t they?

  • 7
    Microseris
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    H.Mc The problems in the original movie are exactly the problems we are currently facing.

    Soylent Green 2013 style just might solve a few of our other problems!

  • 8
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that whenever a deal is done with a corporation it’s the latter which benefits most.

  • 9
    Ian
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Lady,

    WWF has long had a bad reputation because of its very questionable deals with big business although that is not to say that the environment has not benefited at all from their efforts. I, personally stopped donating to them a long time ago because of these questionable dealings and because it is not as if there are not far more committed and less compromised organizations out there who need all the funding and support they can get they can get to fight for the environmental.

    Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are worthy of our support as well as a lot of local grass roots set ups. And then there are all the human rights, peace and social justice organizations that are also battling away to stop the juggernaut in its, now not very covert, goal of using power and money to do exactly as they like - bugger the consequences.

  • 10
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 14 January 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I thought WWF was the “World Wrestling Federation”?

  • 11
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Microseris, agreed. One of the problems with human exploitation of natural resources is it is tied to capitalism. Capitalism knows no bounds to exploit resources to destruction, then move on to the next item to exploit and destroy, be they fish, third world economies or krill.
    The latest story I heard is that there is now a shortage of Helium, which is used to cool instruments used in medical research. The reason..the US (one of the few countries with commercial quantities of Helium) allowed the selling of the licenses to companies who fill party balloons, and that is where this resource is being wasted, utterly incredible.
    Ref. Krill…don’t we have enough “health food” and “supplements”, without destroying the base of the ocean food chain. Is nothing beyond the rapaciousness of world corporations? I would have thought the human species is doing quite well without krill supplements, I haven’t read of humans being at risk of extinctions.
    I think this is one for Greenpeace, after the excellent work they have done for sustainable Tuna fisheries…the battle of the environmental orgs.

  • 12
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Microseris, agreed. One of the problems with human exploitation of natural resources is it is tied to capitalism. Capitalism knows no bounds to exploit resources to destruction, then move on to the next item to exploit and destroy, be they fish, third world economies or krill.
    The latest story I heard is that there is now a shortage of Helium, which is used to cool instruments used in medical research. The reason..the US (one of the few countries with commercial quantities of Helium) allowed the selling of the licenses to companies who fill party balloons, and that is where this resource is being wasted, utterly incredible.
    Ref. Krill…don’t we have enough “health food” and “supplements”, without destroying the base of the ocean food chain. Is nothing beyond the rapaciousness of world corporations? I would have thought the human species is doing quite well without krill supplements, I haven’t read of humans being at risk of extinctions.
    I think this is one for Greenpeace, after the excellent work they have done for sustainable Tuna fisheries…the battle of the environmental orgs.

  • 13
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Microseris, agreed. One of the problems with human exploitation of natural resources is it is tied to capitalism. Capitalism knows no bounds to exploit resources to destruction, then move on to the next item to exploit and destroy, be they fish, third world economies or krill.
    The latest story I heard is that there is now a shortage of Helium, which is used to cool instruments used in medical research. The reason..the US (one of the few countries with commercial quantities of Helium) allowed the selling of the licenses to companies who fill party balloons, and that is where this resource is being wasted, utterly incredible.
    Ref. Krill…don’t we have enough “health food” and “supplements”, without destroying the base of the ocean food chain. Is nothing beyond the rapaciousness of world corporations? I would have thought the human species is doing quite well without krill supplements, I haven’t read of humans being at risk of extinctions.
    I think this is one for Greenpeace, after the excellent work they have done for sustainable Tuna fisheries…the battle of the environmental orgs.

  • 14
    Deborah Bluangel
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I have known about this for quite some time and another krilling company has WWF endorsement in Norway. WWF Australia are also involved with trawl fisheries and salmon farming, a pretty destructive industry which pollutes Tasmanian seas and leads to the persecution of native seals to “protect” the stocks. John West tuna (another partner) are (phasing out but) still using Fish Aggregation Devices, which ensure a large amount of “bycatch”, including whale sharks, one major Australian supermarket has seen fit to take them off the shelf until FADS are not used.
    You can see all of WWF’s “partnerships” on their website but not what they are worth, this is dishonest and misleads the public. I wouldn’t give WWF a cent in donation.
    People can sign this petition to demand WWF end their association with krilling http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Ask_WWF_to_stop_supporting_the_krill_fishery_in_the_Antarctic

  • 15
    Ian
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    MJCP,

    If it were up to me I would classify humans as a critically endangered species. This might seem counter intuitive since we occupy every niche in the planet and our numbers are increasing exponentially but we are behaving like lemmings. The cliff is beckoning and seems irresistible.

  • 16
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Ian, I agree. One only needs to read the reports today regarding the pollution level in Beijing to see we are creating the conditions for our own destruction.
    Deborah, thank you for the comments; WWF will also never again receive my donations.

  • 17
    Phillip Lawrence
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    The frightening thing is looking into the history of the board of WWF in the USA over the past decade or more. Up until about one year ago they were called WWF International, exactly the same name as the original WWF office in Europe.
    People who have come out of big companies such as Goldman Sachs - Chairman, Coca Cola, Google, GE, Mars, Union Carbide and other major USA international corporations. I am personally unconvinced its not all about money, money, protection, money and profits. The corporations as the environmentalists???

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