July 20, 2009

Researchers Turn Greenland Shark Waste Into Biofuel

A surprising and odd source is being tapped in order to provide biofuel for Inuits.

The Greenland shark is one of the largest species of sharks. Its meat is considered toxic to humans and it is a complete nuisance to fisherman.

Now, researchers hope they have found a new use for the grand creature.

The Greenland shark is native to the frigid Arctic waters, and thousands of them get caught and die in fishermen's nets off Greenland every year and are thrown back into the sea. The animals are comparable to the Great White Shark in size at 23 feet and can weigh up to a ton. 

So rather than have them caught and die accidentally in nets, researchers at the Arctic Technology Center (ARTEK) in Sisimiut in western Greenland are experimenting with ways that they can utilize the oily flesh to produce bio-gas out of fishing industry waste.

In Uummannaq, the Greenland shark represents more than half of the waste disposed of by the local fishermen.

Marianne Willemoes Joergensen of ARTEK's branch at the Technical University of Denmark said, "I think this is an alternative where we can use the thousands of tons of leftovers of products from the sea, including those of the numerous sharks."

Leading the pilot project based in the Uummannaq village in northwestern Greenland, Joergensen says that the shark meat, once it is mixed with macro-algae and household wastewater, could "serve as biomass for biofuel production."

"Biofuel is the best solution for this kind of organic waste, which can be used to produce electricity and heating with a carbon neutral method," she said.

According to estimates, biofuel derived from sharks and other sea products could supply 13% of energy consumption in the village of Uummannaq with its 2,450 inhabitants.

If the project succeeds, it would help the many isolated villages on the expansive island to become self-sufficient in terms of energy.

Next year, Joergensen plans to run tests at an organic waste treatment plant in a project financed by the EU in Uummannaq, using a mixture of shark meat, wastewater and macro-algae to create a fish mince that can be used to produce biogas.

"Entire trawlers are sometimes full of sharks and they are caught everywhere, especially off the east and west of Greenland, to the fishermen's great dismay," says Bo Lings who used to work on a big trawler.

Leif Fontaine, the head of Greenland's fishing and hunting association added, "It's a large predator that devours fish, squid, seals and other marine life, and it also ruins the lines and nets of the halibut fishermen."

Fishing is Greenland's biggest export industry, with halibut being its second-biggest product after shrimp.

The Inuits once hunted the shark, which has "become a problem for the environment", for its razor-sharp teeth that they used to make knives and for its liver oil that was used to light homes.

One of ARTEK's founders Joern Hansen explains, "There are too many sharks in the nets and they just get thrown back."

Greenlanders typically throw their fishing industry waste and household wastewater into the sea.

Hansen says that with over half of all the waste in the Uummannaq municipality containing large amounts of fat that are suitable for producing future biofuels in the future, it should no longer be considered as mere waste.

"All you have to do is set up installations in the fish processing centers, like in Ilulissat where the shrimp and halibut plant is partly heated by fish waste," he said.

According to Aksel Blytmann, a consultant at Greenland's fishing and hunting association, the shark could end up being an "unexpected energy source."

Blytmann explained that at one point Uummannaq paid fishermen a $38-reward for a shark heart in order to keep their numbers down. He says this practice still continues in other municipalities in the northwestern and western parts of Greenland.

He claims that the species "swarms in the Arctic waters and is not in danger of extinction."

However, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Danish branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature do not agree.

WWF specialist on ocean mammals, Anne-Marie Bjerg, insists that the shark-for-biofuel project "is not a good idea, not at all," and believes other sustainable energy projects should be worked on instead.

"We know very little about the Greenland shark, which lives in a limited geographic zone, the Arctic, she said.

Despite the accounts of the fishermen, she insisted that the mammal "does not pose big problems to Greenland's fishing industry."

"We are opposed to the commercial use of marine mammals, such as the Greenland shark, which is not universal and whose population size is unknown," she said.


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