It might sound rather strange, but it’s been proven that whale poop is very good for marine life. This essentially comes down to the fact it is loaded with iron, a nutrient that is vital for plant growth. The faeces act as a fertiliser, providing nutrients that encourage growth and provide food for other organisms at the surface of the seabed such as phytoplankton.
Phytoplankton are one of the world’s most critical organisms, providing about half the atmosphere’s oxygen and the base for almost every ocean food web. The phytoplankton are eaten by small fish and crustaceans, which are then consumed by animals further up the food chain. In a sense, they are the building blocks that make most other ocean life possible.
Phytoplankton is also important component of the oceans’ ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere. When a phytoplankton bloom occur these tiny bacterial organisms can absorb huge amounts of carbon, releasing oxygen in return through the photosynthesis process.
Our oceans currently absorb about 30% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, but a group of researchers believe they can increase this number while also helping fish populations by using fake whale faeces to stimulate the growth of additional phytoplankton. In turn, these phytoplankton could encourage greater ecological activity by providing food for animals low on the food chain.
The lead researcher is Professor Sir David King, the Chair of Cambridge University's Centre for Climate Repair, who says the idea could increase the carbon capture of our oceans to over half of our annual global greenhouse gas emissions.
The group are kicking off their experiments this month, using a fake whale poo made of various nutrients including nitrates, phosphates, silicates and iron. The group will deposit the artificial faeces on the seabed before measuring how effective the process is at stimulating ocean life.
“We are trying to repopulate the ocean,” says King.
“As long as there’s no potential harm to the oceans, we believe these experiments need to be conducted.”
The group that is exploring the approach is made up of the University of Hawaii and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, which are leading on research in the Pacific Ocean, the Institute of Maritime Studies in Goa, India, on the Indian Ocean, the University of Cape Town on the Southern Ocean, and the University of Cambridge and the UK’s National Oceanography Centre on the Atlantic Ocean.