Bowermaster’s Adventures: Using creatures to filter the sea

While scientists continue to monitor fish taken from the Gulf for raised levels of chemicals and oil, others around the globe are using specific species to purposely suck up polluted waters.

Two recent reports cite scallops and oysters being used like the proverbial “canary in a coal mine” to both warn of the impacts of growing toxins in the ocean and to help clean it up.

In Russia, the Moscow Times reports, organic chemists have set up a giant sea scallop garden in Kozmino Bay on the Sea of Japan – 7 times zones east of Moscow – near a new, very busy Siberian oil terminal to measure water pollution. Big, recent oil discoveries in remote Siberia are being delivered to the port by pipeline and business at the terminal is expected to double this year to 200 million barrels. Nearby in the same bay abandoned Soviet-era ships, pipelines and old Navy infrastructure rot in the sea.

Known for their ability to filter contaminants including oil and heavy metals, the scallops will serve as watchdogs for the booming port.

Curiously the scallops – 10,000 of the meaty suckers, squeezed into 80 long tubular nets — are not being used so much to help scientists conduct long-term monitoring thus preventing oil spills but rather to help clean them up, suggesting that spills are inevitable not stoppable.
“If the monitoring is successful, we have an idea to create large permanent colonies for scallops, mussels and seaweed at the bottom of the bay and use them to filter the water and keep it clean,” a spokesman told the Times.Across the Northern Pacific, the Voice of America reports on a Seattle laboratory where scientists are using baby oysters for their filtering systems. The goal is to assess just how efficient the oysters are at sucking up carbon dioxide, which is being dumped into the sea thanks to the burning of fossil fuels (the severe problem known as the “evil twin” of global warming, ocean acidification).

Paul McElhany, a biologist working at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, has set up a four tanks reflecting the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean in 1) pre-industrial times, 2) today, 3) the projected amount for the year 2100 and 4) a worse-case scenario. The tanks are filled with Pacific Northwest oysters, which are monitored each day by grad students.

Why oysters? Because they are apparently the most sensitive of all filter fish.

Not all fish are impacted similarly by the ocean’s increased acidity; apparently algae and seaweed prosper under elevated levels of carbon dioxide while shellfish can literally begin to dissolve.

Next up to be tested after oysters? Abalone, geoducks, clams, mussels and krill.

I’m not sure if I’d rather be a scallop assigned to suck up spilled oil or an oyster asked to put its life on the line to help better understand ocean acidification, but both sound better than what scientists are doing to poor zebrafish at Duke University, which are being used to analyze genetic mutations.

In efforts to better understand the inherited Bardet-Biedl syndrome — its symptoms are obesity, retardation and retinopathy – and Down’s syndrome, in vivo tests are being done on zebrafish to see how they respond to defective mammalian cells.

Word of caution: I’d be careful about ordering the Siberian sea scallops for the indefinite future.

[flickr photo via Dan Hershman]