BEIJING — Scientists studying the Antarctic’s marine life received some unexpected news this month: China plans to vastly increase fishing for Antarctic krill – small crustaceans that are a critical food for the continent’s penguins and other creatures.

China currently harvests about 32,000 metric tons of krill annually from Antarctica’s waters, topped only by Norway and South Korea. Under China’s plans, detailed in a March 4 story in the state-run China Daily, the world’s most populous country would increase those catches 30 to 60 times, harvesting up to 2 million metric tons yearly.

Rodolfo Werner, a marine scientist and adviser to Antarctic conservation groups, said he doubts China can ramp up its catches to that level. But the fact that China has announced such ambitious plans worries him, partly because other countries might follow suit.

“I’m concerned – very concerned,” Werner said from his home in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. “If they invest big money in their fishing fleets, it will push the system to relax the current (Antarctic) catch limits.”

Beijing’s fishing plans are part of its larger strategic interests in the frozen continent. Over the last three decades, China has built four research stations in Antarctica and is preparing to build a fifth. While an international treaty protects Antarctica from militarization and mining, the Chinese research stations have fueled speculation that China has long-term plans to exploit the continent’s vast energy and mineral resources.

With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, China is highly concerned about food security and harvests krill for a variety of products. These include livestock and aquaculture feed, fish bait and omega-3 dietary supplements.

Norway is the world’s largest harvester of Antarctic krill, largely to supply the supplements industry with omega-3 fatty acids.

Worldwide, huge swarms of krill help feed whales, penguins and other marine animals. Antarctic krill are small creatures but incredibly abundant. Scientists believe that the total weight of Antarctic krill is greater than the cumulative weight of any other animal species.

Despite that abundance, many conservationists are concerned that the Antarctic’s food chain is already being harmed by industrial krill fishing.