In a few weeks an international group of scientists will launch an unusual marine research project. They will dust the surface of the Indian Ocean with artificial whale faeces.
The aim of this excremental experiment is straightforward: to determine if it is possible to reboot marine ecosystems that have been starved of nutrients and in the process restore dwindling fish populations. It is also hoped the project will help in the battle against climate change.
“Whales eat tiny crustaceans called krill, typically about 300 metres below sea level,” said Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government and one of the project’s leaders. At this depth the water pressure is too great for them to be able to poo, so they come to the surface to do their business. In turn, as sunlight falls on it, phytoplankton grows there and this provides food for fish.
It's a symbiotic process, but the problem is that the global whale population has been greatly depleted through hunting. As a result, the ocean has been starved of excreted nutrients that have provided sustenance for fish. “We need to find a way of restoring stocks,” said King.
The marine biomass regeneration project – as it is delicately named – aims to put this right, and will be conducting their first experiments next month. King says it will be limited in size and only last a few weeks, adding: “Apart from the fact that phytoplankton will provide food for fish, it will also absorb carbon dioxide, so there is a second potential gain that the project might provide for the planet.”