To get a sense of just how small krill are, know this: Each blue whale needs to eat 40 million krill every single day to survive.

Antarctic krill, tiny shrimplike crustaceans, are a key part of the ocean’s food chain for whales, penguins and seals. Increasingly, krill have also become part of the human food chain — krill oil, with omega-3 fatty acids, is advertised as a wonder drug that may help with heart health, cholesterol and even improve our moods. 

The health pitch is working. Krill oil sales are booming, but krill populations in Antarctica have dropped by 40 to 80 percent in the past 30 years. It’s not just from overfishing — krill also need sea ice, which is retreating as the climate warms. With fewer krill, two species of penguins are in rapid decline, and Antarctic blue whales have been pushed closer to extinction.

That's what worries Glenn Hurowitz, director of Lifeline Antarctica, a coalition of organizations working to protect the waters surrounding the southern continent.

“Our vision is to make the southern ocean the last refuge that’s free of commercial and military exploitation. Part of that means not sending these huge ships with vacuum cleaners that suck up krill to the Antarctic Ocean,” says Hurowitz.

Hurowitz and his coalition are trying to bring attention to this by targeting theworld’s largest pharmacy, the Walgreens Boots Alliance, and its omega-3 krill supplements.

The save-the-krill coalition has held meetings with Walgreens executives. They’ve picketed stores with people dressed as penguins and other sea creatures in California, London and Chicago. They’re also producing adorable krill cartoons to raise awareness. 

The movement also has a powerful Washington ally: recently retired Congressman Henry Waxman. The Democrat from California, called the Eliott Ness of his party, spent 38 years in Congress taking on big tobacco, big food and big polluters. Now, he has Walgreens in his sights.

“If countries need to act responsibly, businesses need to act responsibly as well. And the omega-3 supplement can be made without using krill,” says Waxman.

Retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are selling omega-3 supplements made from fish oils and algae. In addition to Walgreens, Costco, Walmart, Target and CVS also sell krill products.

But Waxman says targeting just Walgreens is an old labor strategy: Go after the most influential player. 

“My father was a member of the retail clerk’s union. And they would picket only one store, one chain, and then get a contract with all of them,” says Waxman.

But is Walgreens feeling the pressure? A company spokesman, Jim Graham, said via e-mail that nobody was available for an interview. He did say that Walgreens’ krill products are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, a non-profit that works to encourage sustainable fishing. Several leading environmental groups havefiercely criticized that certification.

The omega-3 supplement business is worth billions, so it’s not hard to understand why Walgreens doesn’t want to pull a popular product.

Andrew Hoffman, who researches business sustainability at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says companies try to stay one step ahead of the competition on environmental issues, not two.

“You think about it as a wave and it’s cresting, and you want to move just ahead of the competition,” says Hoffman. “But you don’t want to move too soon if you find yourself out there all by yourself.”

On the other hand, if a company catches a wave by itself — by doing something good for the environment — that can send a positive message to customers. Hoffman says judging when to move is more art than science.

“I think the key factors are: Are there high visibility players that are calling attention to this issue that will draw media attention?” says Hoffman. “And, certainly, a US congress member would drive attention to this issue. The mere fact that we’re having this conversation right now — would it be happening if the [former] congressman wasn’t involved? It’s a good question.”

Of course many environmentalists aren’t concerned about Walgreen’s quarterly profits. To them, protecting the planet should be the bottom line.

Lifeline Antartica has protested in front of several Walgreens stores, this one in Chicago on March 17, 2016. 

Lifeline Antarctica

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI