Oceans provide a bounty of fishing, swimming, inspiration, and cool shots for 3D IMAX films. Mariners know that the seas also provide a plethora of problematic critters that cling to oil rigs, undersea pipelines, fish farms, and ship hulls.

A former College of Charleston graduate student, Andy Mount, may have discovered that another subaquatic life form, Charleston’s beloved oyster, holds the power to combat these unwanted stowaways.

According to Mount, the gathering of “bio-fouling” barnacles, mussels, and algae on pipelines and oil rigs can lead to premature corrosion of support structures and pipes.

With a Master’s degree in marine biology from CofC, Mount journeyed inland to Clemson University back in 1991 to get his Ph.D. He focused his research on oyster shell formation. During the course of his work, he may have discovered that these little marsh boogers are much more than just a tasty aphrodisiac. Oyster hormones may be the key to keeping barnacles and other clingers-on from accumulating, and if that’s the case, Mount’s research could save lots of money and help the environment.

When barnacles collect on ships, they create more water resistance, which causes more fuel to be burned and results in less maneuverability for the vessel.

Current methods of thwarting these pests of industry are far from desirable. One time-consuming technique is scraping barnacles off hulls. Another method involves environmentally unfriendly paint additives.

Starting in the 1940s, large ships were coated with heavy metals known as organotins to stem the gathering of plants and animals on the hulls of ships. It worked well, but the additive was found to leach out of the paint and harm subaquatic ecosystems.

By 1989, the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization recognized the ecological threat posed by the organotins. The IMO cites studies showing that the effective and widely used organotin tributylin (TBT) has been proven to cause deformations in oysters and sex changes in whelks, as well as harm to marine mammals. Another concern is that the biocide may enter the food chain.

In 2001, the IMO introduced an international accord calling for an end to the use of the earth-damaging additives by 2008.

According to an undated chart on the IMO’s website, the United States has not ratified the treaty.

The U.S. Navy, however, has made strides toward meeting the requirements imposed by the accord. Around 1984, the Navy switched to a less effective copper-based paint, according to Dr. Linda Chrisey with the Navy’s Office of Naval Research.

While more environmentally friendly, the new defouling technique is less effective, which means warships now require more time, money, and manpower to keep their hulls slicing smoothly through the seas. As a result, the Navy has been searching for a more effective antifouling coating.

Research is already underway in applying “nonstick” technology, similar to the coating used on frying pans, to the hulls of ships so little crusty sea critters would slide right off, according to Dr. Mount.

Another method, which Mount has been pursuing, seeks to harness one of life’s natural forces: oyster hormones.

Mount and his fellow researchers hypothesized that oysters use a hormone called noradrenaline to prevent organisms from clinging to their shells.

If the oyster’s technique can be applied to oil rigs and sea vessels, the oceans and their connected marshes would hold the power to save maritime industries $1.4 billion dollars a year, according to the university.

The Navy provided Mount with a $110,000 research grant, but it took a little more than just asking nicely to get the money.

Mount contacted the ONR over 18 months ago, but it wasn’t until about a year later, when one of his papers on crystal-making oyster cells was published in the magazine Science, that the ONR contacted him to reward his efforts and award him the grant.

The Navy has not enlisted the oyster chemical yet, though. “Dr. Mount’s research is at a very fundamental stage and is not yet anywhere near to being a ‘technology’,” Chrisey says.

Still, Mount sees the possibilities of his research as another reason to save the oceans. “All marine life should be protected, just like the rainforests. We never know what will benefit mankind,” Mount said.

How ironic, that marine life will protect oil rigs and ships that threaten native ecosystems.

Offshore Off Limits
On June 22, the Sierra Club visited Folly Beach as part of their “Clean Beaches — No Drilling” tour along the Southeast coast. The campaign has been organized to spread awareness about the environmental risks of offshore drilling and to encourage beachgoers to embrace clean energy solutions before resorting to coastal oil drilling.

The event was more like a beach party than a press conference. Sierra Club representatives dressed up in oil barrel costumes, a fake oil slick was cordoned off along a section of the beach, and bathing suit-clad kids were recruited to rally vacationers to the cause with bull horns and mail-in postcards supporting the Sierra Club mission.

Despite the playful atmosphere, the Sierra Club and their allies in the local conservation community are dead serious about the risks of offshore drilling.

For 25 years there has been a moratorium on coastal offshore oil drilling in this area. Various proposals in Congress this year have suggested weakening these protections. One of these, the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act bill, was just given approval by a congressional panel.

This issue has received a large amount of attention in the local press. U.S. House Representative for Charleston, Henry Brown (R), has come out in support of offshore drilling, calling it a way to “examine alternative sources that will wean us from dependency on foreign oil.”

Brown is up for reelection in November, making this an even greater hot button issue.

“I know the environmental community has some concerns,” Brown says. “All the equipment is on the ocean floor and we’re talking about drilling 50 miles offshore. No rigs would be visible, no blinking lights. We need the revenue for our infrastructure to draw tourists.”

According to conservationists, Brown’s tourism logic is a little off base. “Our coasts and marine waters provide the economic lifeblood for tourism and fishing communities, a destination for thousands of vacationing families each year, and sanctuary for fish and wildlife. Offshore drilling would industrialize our coasts and put our coastal communities and economies at risk,” says Barb Payne, the regional representative for the Sierra Club.

From 1990-1999, offshore drilling platforms and pipelines spilled 1.8 million gallons of oil into U.S. waters — nearly 500 gallons a day. And while the United States is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s oil consumption, we have less than three percent of the world’s oil supplies. It seems unlikely that offshore drilling would quench America’s need for oil, and would, more likely, exacerbate pollution already affecting our oceans and beaches.

Some of the energy solutions that the Sierra Club suggests include increasing the energy efficiency of cars, buildings, and appliances, while also boosting the amount of energy we generate from renewable sources like wind and solar power. The Sierra Club argues that doing this would dramatically reduce the need for natural gas, decreasing prices by 37 percent in the first year.

“We can’t drill our way to lower gas prices, but we can kick our oil addiction,” says Payne. “There are faster, cheaper, cleaner, and longer-term energy solutions like efficiency and clean, renewable energy that will start saving families and businesses money today and protect our coastal waters, beaches, and economies.”

To learn more about the Sierra Club’s mission to protect our beaches, visit http://www.sierraclub.org/coasts. To find out about Rep. Henry Brown’s reasons for supporting the offshore drilling, locate his website at http://www.Brown.house.gov.

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