Two months into my visit and I’ve certainly had my eyes opened to the scale of aquaculture in Chinese waters. We travelled 3 hours by car to the sampling site, a large-scale kelp farm, and the scale did not disappoint me. If you zoom in on Ailian Bay, Rongcheng, Shandong, China, in satellite mode in Google Maps you can begin to grasp the scale of aquaculture out here. However, after 6 months of planning and ogling the satellite view of where I was going from the safety of my desk in Oban, I had arrived, and It was certainly the eye opener I was hoping for.
Before we left the dock, there was a lot of conversation with the farm workers about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. Professor Wang and his colleagues explain the plan and I listen intently. I always hope that I will start to understand Chinese, but for now I rely on my fairly sketchy acting skills.
After taking the samples we took a trip to the nursery ground of some new strains of kelp being bred by staff at the Yellow Seas Fisheries Research Institute. This reminded me of scenes from popular fishing television channels. Instead of wrestling a fat slippery fish over the side of the boat, it was a long, fat, glistening sheet of Haidai (Kelp). We took lots of pictures holding the specimens before heading back to shore for a celebratory lunch.
Celebratory lunch included anglerfish, braised sea anemone and sea urchin gonads. Luckily it was all washed down with some Jasmine tea and Tsingtao beer. After learning what I thought was Chinese for ‘Cheers!’ –Ganbei- I thought this lunch would be a good time to raise a glass and say Ganbei! However, I later learned that Ganbei means to ‘empty all’. I had inflicted a lot of beer on my peers, and hadn’t upheld the ‘empty all’ rule myself….
After lunch, before heading back to Qingdao, we took a visit to the seeding and processing area of the seaweed farm. Here you can really grasp the scale of production, here the land parallels the sea behind it, with a sea of kelp on land and beyond it a sea of suspended kelp in the bay. Farmers work to flatten out the kelp blades and allow them to be dried by the sun. The kelp is dried to prolong storage and most of this biomass will be used in the production of fertilizer.
I had to remember, as I got snap happy with the camera that I would be back every month until September. In this time I will be able to see the complete harvest of kelp in Ailian Bay and preparation for seeding to do it all again in autumn.
I arrived in Qingdao about three weeks ago, and already time is flying by. So here’s a short update on what I’ve been up to.
On my very first morning I was picked up at my apartment at 7:30am by my lab mate ‘Ma’ or in English, otherwise known as ‘Jackie Chan’. He was my escort to the lab canteen where I sampled my first Chinese meal. Needless to say the first phrase I have learnt in China is Chi fan (to eat). I think this says a lot about how my time in China will be spent.
Then I was taken to my desk post for the next 6 months.
I was swiftly shown around the lab to see the umpteen tanks and flasks all holding sporophytes and gametophytes of China’s most important cultivated algae species; Laminaria, Macrocystis, Porphyra and Sargassum to name but a few.
After a few days I was taken to what was told was a small seaweed farm. The common method for students to travel in research is to take the bus, so we spent an hour on multiple buses carrying expensive sampling equipment.
After the bus adventures we arrived at Yangkou Bay villiage, a quaint Chinese fishing village with contrasting occupants of just a few crusty fisherman and scores of art student who apparently flock to the mountainous Laoshan area to make scenic oil paintings. Here there were long lines of Gracilaria and recently coppiced Undaria. We took out a small wooden boat into the bay with two local farmers as long line guides.
It’s not all been straight to work, I’ve made friends with fellow lab colleagues who took me to see the quiet (in Chinese terms) old streets of Qingdao. These streets were built by German designers who occupied the city from 1898-1914 because of its importance as a fortified port. Here there were tree lined streets and dozens of brides and grooms to be! It is a more recent tradition for the bride and groom to take pictures before the wedding, for guests to buy and for the couple to showcase on the big day. As these streets are lined with beautiful blossom laden trees it seems to be a hot spot, so many brides and grooms jockeyed for positions under trees and in open grass areas, which are few and far between.
The following weekend I visited Qingdao International Horticulture Expo, which was my first experience of construction speed and development in China. Here, what I can only describe as buildings resembling that of a sci-fi movie have been propped up under the mountains, in what used to be rich farmland. This vast exposition ranging just under 2km2 was built in the last 6 months and will only exist from April-October 2014, after which most of it will be destroyed, and I’m told by the locals will likely be sold to expand the surrounding industrial parks.
I will sign out with the view from my apartment, officially the tallest building I have ever lived in. I live on the 14th floor, however this is called the 16th floor. After my first trip in the lift I realized that the floors 13 & 14 didn’t exist on the list of stops. As I had read, the Chinese hold lucky numbers in high regard and seem to eliminate the unlucky ones where possible. Thus, my apparently unlucky 14th floor apartment will always be the 16th stop in the elevator.
More Qingdao Diaries to follow…
We are all bombarded by the growing campaigns to preserve our terrestrial forests, be it tropical to temperate. However, not far from our rocky shores, lurks a sub sea hub of activity, in the swaying fronds (algal leaves) of our kelp forests. Made famous by the Californian giant kelp, which can grow up to 45m in one growing season, kelp species of many sorts and sizes can imitate the complex habitat provided by a tropical rainforests and even coral reefs.
The physical structure of the kelps provides shelter and creates favourable conditions for the fauna and flora which has become reliant upon these properties. The different structural properties of kelps can be classified under three ‘guilds’; canopy, stipitate and prostrate.
Canopy: larger of the species which typically grow long surface reaching canopies.
Stipitate: shorter in height and grow on a rigid stipe (supporting stalk) to protect the vulnerable fronds from the benthos of a few metres in length but grow in thick fields on the sea floor.
Prostrate: also shorter than canopy species, grow in the shallows and tend to cover the sea floor with their fronds.
It is the co-existence of these guilds, and the many species which are classified by these structural terms, which create such diverse habitats for a diverse assemblage of inhabitants. It is not only the presence of variable niches for the creatures of a kelp forest, but the contrasting conditions they provide in an energetic coastal environment. Shading from the fronds allows favourable conditions for those benthic algal species that are adapted to low light to thrive. Dampening of the vigorous coastal currents allows for increased sedimentation and reduced erosion, which in turn impacts benthic productivity and recruitment of macrofauna.
Macrofauna associated with these forests have in some cases developed a reliance on this unique forest habitat. From limpets which have adapted to live in the cavities of the kelp stipe to the killer whales who hunt on the otters who forage in these slippery canopies.
We are now aware of the biodiversity these uniquely kelp driven ecosystems behold, but with the looming possibility that such species might be grown on a large-scale to provide our every energy need, it begs the question… can these man-made seaweed farms provide some habitat that may shelter and enhance local biodiversity?
As these cultured seaweeds will be hanging sub-surface structures they may not stimulate the benthic assemblages associated with classic kelp forests, but they can facilitate the pelagic macrofaunal species associated with such species, and may impact the benthos below in a similar manner to that of the anchored natural kelp beds. Even if these niches were to be exploited by local communities, kelp farms should take seriously the methods for harvesting and the timing if the benefits of these almost artificial reefs are to be reaped.
Just some more algal food for thought…
Seaweed farms for biofuels may be coming to a Scottish sea loch near you soon, and although this idea is relatively new to most, the history of seaweed utilisation is deep-rooted.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Japanese aborigines ate seaweed as early as 300BC (Ragan and Bird, 1987), and in AD 701 it was written in the Law of Taiho that seaweeds -including kelp- were used to pay taxes to the courts! Now wouldn’t that be a nice thought in today’s economic crisis…
Closer to home, we are beginning to discuss and explore the reality of seaweed biomass for sustainable fuels of the future. However, historic remains in Scottish Bronze Age cremations suggest that even then, the anthropogenic uses of seaweed for fuel had been put to practise.
Currently, the kind of kelp farming we imagine as a resource of the future requires little in the way of 21st century technology, and the idea that kelp culture can be part of a larger scheme to utilise ‘Energy from the Sea’ is not a new one. Below is an article from 1975 in the magazine ‘Popular Science’ which describes an early trial by scientists and US Navy frogmen, who carried out a ‘mission’ to develop kelp culture 60miles out in the Pacific Ocean.
This idea, which at the time was quoted in the article as ‘far seeing’, is to date being explored by many international marine renewable research groups, and taking the next step towards the realisation of this once ‘far seeing’ idea is now coming to a head.
Here in the sea lochs of the Scottish west coast the Scottish Salmon Company have been trialling the co-culture of salmon and kelp to reuse the nutrient rich waste produced by fish farming. The potential to produce seaweed for fuel as a co-product of salmon cultivation is currently proving to be success, and is only paving the way for full-scale seaweed farms locally.
All-in-all from the historic to the futuristic, the realistic is fast approaching. It may have taken decades (if not more…) to refine that light-bulb moment of seaweed energy exploitation, and it could in our lifetime become part of the solution to the long anticipated fuel crisis.
Just another reason to become a fan of all things algae.
When we think ’emissions’ we think car exhausts and industrial cooling towers.Wrong. 20-30% of global emissions are a consequence of losses and degradation of natural ecosystems’ Trumper et. al.(2009).
CARBON COLOUR KEY
“Brown Carbon” Green house Gases (a gas which absorbs radiation and traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere, e.g. CO2)
“Black Carbon” The particles leftover from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (soot and dust), which has a greater effect on radiation transmission. This in turn can directly and indirectly reduce the albedo effect of global snow and ice.
“Green Carbon” Carbon incorporated into plant biomass and the soils below.
and our friend…
“Blue Carbon“- carbon captured by the world’s ocean critters, and over half of all carbon in living organisms resides here, under the glassy and deceiving barren big blue. Important coastal vegetation habitats such as mangroves and seagrasses which acquire the carbon stored in marine sediments are being lost at a rate 5-10 times higher than the rainforests (Nellemann et. al. , 2009).
So what has this carbon rainbow got to do with seaweeds?… Well it has been noted in the ‘Blue Carbon’ UNEP Report that biofuels from land crops often replace natural and more efficient carbon capturing ecosystems (grasslands and forests), producing more CO2 than the replacement of fossil fuels.
Could seaweed culture for the production of biofuels be carried out on a large-scale without the degradation of what carbon capture was already going on? Could it possibly even enhance the carbon capturing ability of a local environment by increasing sedimentation and acting as an artificial habitat for creatures that call kelp home?…these are yet unanswered questions.However what is clear, is the ability of marine vegetation to naturally store CO2 which is being prematurely released into the atmosphere through ecosystem degredation.
So back to the blue carbon, unlike rainforests which store carbon for decades, the uptake of carbon by marine organisms (seaweed and seagrasses alike) can naturally lock up and store these green house gases for millions of years in seabed sediments, and have been doing so for the many years they have existed before us.
Just another reason to become a fan of all things algae. Blue Carbon.
Seaweed…It’s in your OJ first thing in the morning and your toothpaste last thing at night, and yet it’s not the most beloved of marine species.
With media giants such as Disney conjuring up the cute coral reef ambassador ‘Nemo’, it’s no wonder that seaweed lags in the popularity race that public awareness so often succumbs to. However, I hope this blog can offer an enthusing insight into the world of seaweed science, I think it’s about time we ’embrace the slime’!
I have only recently joined the Scottish Marine Institute as a PhD research student, and will be working on the environmental impacts of large-scale seaweed farms for biofuel production. It’s not the most glamorous of marine biologist jobs, but coming from a dairy farming background the wellies are a welcome working accessory.
Seaweedscience to follow!