The Seaweed and Shellfish Solution: Using Nature's Filters to Help Curb Pollution and Fish Farm Waste

By Cho, Renee | E Magazine, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Seaweed and Shellfish Solution: Using Nature's Filters to Help Curb Pollution and Fish Farm Waste


Cho, Renee, E Magazine


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When runoff from fertilized lawns, agricultural fields and sewage treatment plants reaches our rivers and coasts, it causes a water pollution problem known as eutrophication. In other words, unhealthy levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. These excess nutrients stimulate algal blooms. And these blooms, in turn, starve the water of oxygen, creating a dead zone where no creatures can survive. Some blooms are even toxic to humans.

One way to "bioextract" these nutrients that shows promise involves the use of shellish and seaweeds. Charles Yarish, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, is one of the researchers involved in a $2.4 million project to help clean up the Bronx River in New York City using mussels and seaweeds, funded by the Long Island Sound Futures Fund (longislandsoundstudy.net).

Nitrogen and phosphorus exist in organic (plant and animal residue) and inorganic (mineralized) forms. As shellfish filter water, they remove organic nutrients, while seaweeds take up inorganic nutrients. This project will use the native red seaweed Gracilaria in summer and fall, and kelp, which thrives in winter. Because no large source of young seaweeds exists, Yarish and his colleagues are initially cultivating a seedstock of the seaweeds in their labs.

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This summer and fall, a 20' by 20' raft of ribbed mussels and four seaweed lines will be placed at the mouth of the Bronx River in coordination with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Yarish estimates that the mussels will filter organic nutrients from up to 5.07 million liters of water daily; with seaweeds filtering the inorganic nutrients. Research suggests that the two species might also increase oxygen, improving water quality and fish habitats. Once the mussels and seaweeds have done their work they will be removed periodically to extract excess nutrients, and undergo extensive testing. "We want to find out what's being taken up by the shellfish and the seaweed, and what impact the system has on the local environment," says Yarish. If successful, the strategy could be used in other nutrient hot spots around the U.S.

Yarish will also be conducting a parallel Gracilaria-only project at an open water research site on Long Island Sound belonging to the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science & Technology Education Center in Connecticut, a high school for marine science and aquaculture technology.

Both projects must yield environmental and economic benefits to be viable. Because the Bronx River site is near a wastewater treatment plant, no edible species can be cultivated there; however the ribbed mussels and seaweeds (and the Connecticut Gracilaria) will be evaluated for their economic potential for use as biofuels, agar (a component of red algae used in labs), biochemicals, animal feed, and nutrient extraction. …

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