Career in krill offers scientific thrills

Antarctic Medal winner and science program leader, Dr Steve Nicol, joined the Australian Antarctic Division 24 years ago and began shaking up the biology program almost immediately. On the eve of his retirement he reflects on a career that has helped the Division become a leader in Antarctic krill research, conservation and management.

He doesn’t like going to sea or sitting through lengthy meetings, but Australian Antarctic Division ecologist, Dr Steve Nicol, has made a successful career out of doing just that.

Since he joined the Division in 1987, fresh from a PhD at Dalhousie University, Canada, and a year-long post-doctoral position in Cape Town, he’s clocked up nine sea voyages, more than 470 days at sea, and even longer sitting in meetings of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

With his characteristically dry humour Steve says this career mis-match may be attributable to ‘a few mistakes’ he’s made since he filled a vacancy created by the departure of eminent krill biologist, Dr Tom Ikeda, in 1986.

‘I was young and had no Antarctic experience when I took over from Tom, and the Division’s Chief Scientist, Pat Quilty, stuck his neck out to have me appointed in what was a strongly and internationally contested position,’ Steve says.

‘I needed to get some solid papers on krill and develop some credibility in the Antarctic community. So I focussed on things no-one else could do because they didn’t have access to live krill like we had.’

Steve began his career working on North Atlantic krill off the east coast of Canada, in an area where they swarmed at the surface, staining the water red. He came away from this study with three main impressions about krill: they were really important animals in the marine ecosystem, they were actively behaving animals, and they weren’t that good to eat.

When the Antarctic Division job came up, Steve jumped at the chance to study krill at sea and in the Division’s unique, yet at that time still rudimentary, aquarium — essentially a cold room with some buckets. Then he started questioning the way things were done; his first ‘mistake’ and one he continued to make throughout his career.

‘I discovered that when you ask a lot of questions you tend to get put on committees, given lots of paperwork and finally, if that doesn’t shut you up, you are given positions of responsibility,’ he says.

These responsibilities saw Steve acting as the Program Leader for Biological Sciences in the early 1990s and culminated in his appointment as Leader of the Antarctic Marine Living Resources program (later re-named Southern Ocean Ecosystems) in 1999. From here he oversaw a science program that serviced Australia’s interests in CCAMLR, the international body responsible for the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, such as krill, in the Southern Ocean.

Steve’s involvement in CCAMLR has been both a blessing and a curse. While he dislikes attending meetings generally, he recognises the critical importance of CCAMLR.

‘CCAMLR is a strange mix of politics, diplomacy and science. It took me years to figure out how it worked, and how to work within its constraints. It is a challenging environment, but it is the only decision-making conservation body for the Southern Ocean, so making sure CCAMLR is effective is essential.’

CCAMLR has been a significant force in the direction of Steve’s work and has in fact precipitated the research that became the highlight of his scientific career.

‘When I was interviewed for the job at the Antarctic Division I produced a paper on what I thought the focus of krill research should be. I said we didn’t need to do any more big surveys,’ he says.

Ironically, Steve’s legacy is likely to be the results of two big surveys that he initiated and led in 1996 and 2006, which provided data for CCAMLR to set sustainable catch limits for the krill fishery off the Australian Antarctic Territory.

These voyages (‘BROKE’ and ‘BROKE-West’) utilised the skill set available through the emerging Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre (now the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre) and brought together oceanographic and ecological research, at a very large scale, to produce integrated results. The results appeared in two special issues of Deep Sea Research Part II and Nature.

‘We showed that you could pull together a large, interdisciplinary group of scientists on a single ship, with an applied focus, and produce first-class science as well as management outcomes,’ Steve says.

However, the intensity and duration of the work involved — with both voyages requiring years of planning and writing up and months of discussions in CCAMLR — can only be sustained for so long.

‘One of my reasons for retiring is that I don’t think I can commit another decade to this type of research and that is what it takes to do one of these voyages properly,’ Steve says.

‘If you can’t see it through, it’s not worth setting off on; besides the last one (BROKE-West) was so successful I want to quit while I’m ahead.’

As well as krill and integrated resource management, Steve has interests in photography and communicating science through popular science writing and the work of artists and musicians. His iceberg photographs have won awards and have appeared at exhibitions, in magazines and on stamps. In 2010 he was invited to join the Elysium Epic voyage as principal scientist, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s 1914 trans-Antarctic expedition. The team of explorers, photographers, film makers and scientists are producing a documentary feature and book from the detailed scientific and photographic survey of Antarctica conducted during the three-week voyage.

Steve has also been involved in projects on Antarctic literature and has helped organise a number of conferences on the arts and humanities in Antarctica. He is a champion of the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship scheme.

‘Arts Fellows allow us to tap into a far bigger audience than our science, and we’re only just realising this,’ he says.

Steve’s departure from the Antarctic Division was fittingly preceded by the award of an Antarctic Medal. In his understated way, Steve says it is nice that some of his colleagues ‘thought I had done some things that were worthy of nomination’. He was also pleased to see his friend Captain Murray Doyle recognised; highlighting the critical role the ship’s crew play in the success of the Australian Antarctic program.

In the future Steve hopes that the krill aquarium, which is now a state-of-the-art facility run by Rob King, will continue its trajectory towards being the international centre for research on living krill under the scientific guidance of Dr So Kawaguchi. During Steve’s tenure, the aquarium expanded to allow a range of experiments into the growth, moulting and physiology of krill.

‘We can study almost anything in the aquarium now, except distribution and abundance. When an issue hits the headlines, like ocean acidification, we can turn on an experiment the next day to look at it,’ Steve says.

But now Steve is happy to focus on the next leg of his life journey, a cycling tour around Scandinavia. Later, he hopes to focus on his creative writing interests.

‘I’m convinced that the great Antarctic comic novel is yet to be written. Most Antarctic literature is very serious or seriously bad. After working for the Antarctic Division for 24 years I am not lacking in comic material, I’ll just have to work on my writing skills!’


Corporate Communications, Australian Antarctic Division