Invasive Algae Leads to Boom, Bust, and Maybe Boom Again
“Alien algae is the worst invasive species problem we’re dealing with in the state of Hawaii,” said Tony Montgomery, and aquatic biologist for the state of Hawaii.
The problem goes back to the early 1970s, when a globe-trotting scientist from the University of Hawaii named Maxwell Doty brought back several fast-growing algae species from his travels in warm Pacific seas.
Dr. Doty was a well-regarded aquaculturalist, specializing in growing algae and other aquatic plants in order to extract useful compounds like carageenan, which is still used today as a thickener and additive in products like shampoo, shoe polish, toothpaste and even beer.
Indeed, Dr. Doty’s work eventually helped countries like the Philippines develop their own multi-million dollar industries around these compounds.
By the 1990s, however, it became apparent that several of the imported species, which Dr. Doty nurtured in the waters of Kanoehe Bay near the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, were not only flourishing, but exploding, posing a serious threat to the health of coral reefs here.
“What they do is directly overgrow corals,” explains Eric Conklin, the marine science advisor in Hawaii for the Nature Conservancy. “They smother it, they abrade it, they kill it,” Dr. Conklin said. “They also fill in all of the habitat and complexity of the reef that coral creates, which is what so many of the other reef organisms depend on.”
In 2006, to deal with this worsening problem, the Nature Conservancy teamed up with the University of Hawaii and the state’s government to develop a barge-and-pump system they call the Supersucker.
Employing divers in the water, the algae is removed from the reefs by hand, stuffed into long corrugated tubes, and deposited onto a sorting table on the barge where coral and other living organisms are removed. The project is still in a pilot phase, but it has proven very effective on certain patch reefs in Kanoehe Bay.
Brian Parscal, the project’s operations supervisor, says the supersucker can slurp betwen 3,000 and 3,500 pounds per day off the reefs.
And what do they do with all that algae? Well, Dr. Doty’s unintended legacy appears to be providing an unintended benefit. For several years now, Mr. Parscal says he has been handing over bags of algae to local farmers who use it as fertilizer. “They take all we can give them,” he said.
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