Low catch limits for forage species are often considered to be precautionary measures that can help conserve marine predators. Uncertainty about the impacts of fisheries removals on dependent predators bolsters this perspective, but consideration of the spatio-temporal scales over which forage species, their predators, and fisheries interact can aid assessment of whether low catch limits are as precautionary as presumed. Antarctic krill are targeted by the largest fishery in the Southern Ocean and are key forage for numerous predators. Current krill removals are considered precautionary and have not been previously observed to affect krill-dependent predators, like penguins. Using a hierarchical model and 30+ years of monitoring data, we show that expected penguin performance was reduced when local harvest rates of krill were ≥ 0.1, and this effect was similar in magnitude to that of poor environmental conditions. With continued climate warming and high local harvest rates, future observations of penguin performance are predicted to be below the long-term average with a probability of 0.77. Catch limits that are considered precautionary for forage species simply because the limit is a small proportion of the species’ standing biomass may not be precautionary for their predators.