News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 24, 2012
Zone C Council asked to support fungi buoy pilot project

Zone C members

Zone C members Robert Ray, left, and Michael Sherman ask Sue Van Hook questions about buoy pilot project.

Photo by Karin Sanborn Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Karin Sanborn

Bridged via teleconference, Lobster Zone C Council members met Thursday, May 17, at the Deer Isle Stonington High School and on North Haven. With nearly a full quorum, Chairman Hilton Turner turned the floor over to a guest speaker topping the agenda.

“I am the granddaughter of a North Haven fisherman, a lobsterman, and that is where I spent all of my summers for my entire life.” Sue Van Hook said, “I am also a biologist and I’m teaching at a college in New York state and I now work for a company called Ecovative Design. Our mission is to replace the Styrofoam plastic foams on the planet because they are impacting our ecosystems.”

Van Hook passed around a couple buoys she said she just made. One of them has a layer of epoxy between it and the green paint she applied. However, the buoys, she said, are very different; she grew them in about a week inside a plastic coke bottle she used for a mold.

Van Hook said she was inspired to make a couple trial-run buoys after learning about the increase of shell disease in lobsters in southern Maine. She said she was thinking about the 25 percent of space Styrofoam products take up in landfills, learning after a few phone calls with marine resource officials that upwards of 50 percent of buoys are lost and or replaced annually by fishermen. The lost buoys, she said, are likely to remain in the oceans ecosystem causing further harm forever because they aren’t bio-degradable.

Using agricultural waste products like corn stalks, hemp, rice, oats soybeans, buckwheat hulls and fungi, that Van Hook said she gathered in the woods from mushroom tissues, she grew the buoys in a matter of days. She said she could grow any shape and or size product using this process. The mycelia fibers created do not require sunlight, watering, or petrochemical inputs. The now-mastered-process for Van Hook is self-sustaining, she said, once initiated. Growth is arrested through heat and dehydration treatments and the finished product contains no spores or allergens.

The process for variations of the product, according to Van Hook, can be tweaked as needed with pilot projects. She said she needed support and help from lobstermen willing to use prototypes and make suggestions in hopes to render another all natural eco-friendly bio-degradable product made with sustainable resources for the market. Ecovative Design is producing a variety of products based on this same “recipe.”

Van Hook said there have been studies showing a direct correlation between shell disease in lobsters and stress caused by environmental changes and pollutants.

She said the increase in water temperature is inching up the coastline, warming the Gulf of Maine’s largest and only sustainable stock—lobsters. She says the waters are carrying pollutants from plastics in waters used by lobsters for habitat. Anaerobic respiration in shallow murky polluted waters can also trigger stress and imbalance for the lobsters. She said stress and imbalance deprive the immune system, leading to disease for shell formation. Shell disease is not contagious; it is a response to environmental stressors.

The natural response for lobsters with shell imperfections is to molt, start over, but according to Van Hook, even this is a failed cure because of the pollutants.

While growing a new shell, in a healthy environment, protein molecules called tyrosine are naturally made and used for proper shell growth by lobsters. However, according to Van Hook, researchers are finding this key element is not being generated properly or adequately, resulting in yet another molt.

She said research could illustrate a direct correlation between lobsters with shell disease and the pollutants coming from plastics like BPA called alkyphenols, which distract the endocrine system by mimicking the presence of tyrosine molecules—the protein required for proper shell formation and hardening—has been to blame. Van Hook asked volunteers to use the buoys, and or toggles in a pilot program to find a way to make a product that is sustainable, natural, biodegradable and affordable.

Chairman Hilton Turner agreed to trial run toggles, and maybe buoys by the end of the meeting. In a follow up conversation with Van Hook after the meeting, she said the toggles are already growing in four or five different versions.

Van Hook is working with DMR to weigh the feasibility of the buoy/toggle project.