A researcher at the University of Connecticut has come up with a solution for certain kinds of coastal water pollution. Professor Charles Yarish is developing an engineered ecosystem based on seaweed and shellfish that could help reduce excess nutrients, one of the vital signs of a healthy marine environment. Excess nutrients are a particularly stubborn problem in enclosed regions such as the Long Island Sound, which shares a coastline with heavily populated Connecticut and downstate New York.
Seaweed and Coastal Pollution
As reported by UConn writer Christine Buckley, many seaweed varieties thrive in water with high levels of inorganic nutrients, while clams, mussels and other shellfish filter organic particles that contain nutrients. By cultivating edible seaweed in tandem with, for example, a mussel farm, you get a powerful one-two punch for reducing excess nutrients while also producing two food crops (though when it comes to food crops, the limitation would be the presence of other waterborne pollutants that could enter the food chain). The method could also be deployed to manage excess nutrients from commercial fish farms.
Seaweed to the Rescue
Seaweed recently made the news for its potential as a biofuel crop, so it's possible that it could be cultivated to clean up other kinds of water pollution, then recycled for biofuel instead of food. Yarish's work also shares elements with phytoremediation, in which plants such as cattails are cultivated in order to extract pollutants from water. This is a growing trend that includes the construction of wetlands to treat wastewater. Another concurrent development is the potential use of earthworms to filter toxic wastes from soil. While it's not possible to worm our way out of every problem created by human activity, these approaches show that a little foresight and planning can combine with a low-tech approach to produce significant results.