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Mercury Extraction From Food Chain

A controversial idea
  (+5, -2)
(+5, -2)
  [vote for,

First a little background. Mercury was a very important aspect of the gold mining industry. Back in the gold rush days, mercury was used with abandon. Single counties in California produced more mercury pollution than the entire nation does today.

Mercury is a huge problem in the food supply. It makes some fish too dangerous to eat, especially ones further up the food chain. The reason for this is biomagnification.

We've really screwed up the oceans, especially places like the San Francisco Bay. Sadly, once mercury enters the ecosystem, it's hard to get back out, as scavengers will eat the bodies of dead predators. I don't think we can remove the mercury without killing a few animals.

New technology, however, holds promise. Thermal depolymerization is capable of seperating mercury from carbon-rich feedstocks.

A big example: There are 160,000 killer whales in the ocean today. Many have elevated levels of mercury, thanks to old pollution. This is a stable, healthy population of killer whales, however, there is a problem: many of killer whale's food sources are not as abundant. For example, baleen whales.

Since baleen wheels feed relatively low on the food chain, lack of baleen whales exascerbates the biomagnification issues for killer whales.

Instead of going from

Algae-shrimp-baleen whale-killer whale, the food chaing path is longer:

Algae-filter feeder-small fish-medium fish-seal-killer whale.

Anyway, since 160,000 killer whales is a healthy size, it should be safe to reduce the number down to 150,000 worldwide. The culled whales will be rendered into oil via thermal depolymerization, so that all mercury is removed.

Only non-threatened species would be culled. The effects would be carefully monitored down the food chain. A cull of killer whales might cause seal overpopulation, for example, and as such, seals would have to be culled as well.

Slowly but surely, however, the removal of mercury from the food chain should increase the health of the oceans. As average mercury extracted per culled whale goes down, the ocean should become safer and healthier, and the cull can be lifted.

I realize that this is a controversial idea, since killer whales are considered a very charismatic animal. However mercury in the oceans is quite nasty, and should be reduced. A swift death from a hunter's tools is more humane than a slow death of mercury poisoning.

Right now, the mercury levels are, by conservative aspects, about 10X higher than they should be. Assuming a 2% cull each year, it will sadly take over 100 years to remove the mercury in the oceans. However, if there is still mercury entering the food chain, the situation is dire, and a cull would potentially end a death-spriral in the ocean.

Meanwhile, the culls would provide a tiny amount of oil. Not anywhere near enough to meet world demand, but enough to make the mercury extraction economical in the short-term(especially with today's prices), as well as the long term.

Madai, Jun 29 2005

Killer whales vs Gray Whales http://www.sfgate.c.../26/MNGFR6RT7G1.DTL
Yummy Gray Whales! [bungston, Jun 29 2005]

Killer Whales vs Blue Whale http://www.orcaskil.../orca_attack_en.htm
Don't eat it all at once, though. [bungston, Jun 29 2005]

Killer whales: Common! http://nmml.afsc.no...ns/killer2.htm#many
[bungston, Jun 29 2005]

Mercury http://www.arthurda...ury_Convertible.jpg
[normzone, Jul 01 2005]

Luna, an orca with his own fan club http://www.reunitel..._release.php?id=730
He was seperated from his family at an early age, and is growing up more oriented towards boats and people. [normzone, Jul 01 2005]


       [MFD Removed: I stand corrected] Bad science. 1: Removing the mercury from the top of the food chain won't fix anything--once it gets that far, the animal dies and carries the mercury down to the bottom of the ocean, where it stays (more or less), removing it from the food chain anyway. 2: 150,000 is not a healthy population, and killer whales are not a non-threatened population. 3: Killer whales don't eat baleen whales.
5th Earth, Jun 29 2005

       [5th] I believe you are wrong on all 3 counts. I am certain you are wrong about point 3. I will try to vindicate [Madai] with links.   

       (later) - OK, thats 1 and 2. It is very hard to find data on mercury flux between marine sediments and the water column / food chain.
bungston, Jun 29 2005

       We've done in the shark population, and now we're inundated with seals. Can you teach them to eat thermometers?
normzone, Jun 29 2005

       Also to vindicate Madai in regard to point 1, the plan is to physically remove whales from the ocean and harvest the mercury by oil extraction.   

       On the other hand, I'm not chemist but I would expect mercury laden oil to release mercury upon being burnt.   

       Also, the Madai’s math only works if you catch and kill only mercurized whales, while also eliminating all new pollution. I figure culling a random 2% of whales each year to eliminate only 84% of mercury after 100 years, and to never eliminate it all.
Laughs Last, Jun 29 2005

       Actually, you're right, you'd never eliminate it all. But I assure you, you aren't going to find killer whales without mercury in them. There's a hell of a lot of Mercury in the ocean, and it's everywhere. The only question I have is what percentage of the total mercury in the ecosystem is contained in the killer whale population at any given time.
Madcat, Jun 30 2005

       I might add that if 150,000 killer whales is in fact a safe number, reducing their population a little bit might be justifiable for other reasons. That would take some of the pressure off of the baleen whales, which ARE endangered.   

       Just keep the Japanese away from this one, they'll get addicted to it or something.
Madcat, Jun 30 2005

       MFD removed. I stand corrected.
5th Earth, Jun 30 2005

       I thought we were removing mercury from the food chain by letting it concentrate in people, then burying them in the ground when they die.
DrCurry, Jun 30 2005

       [Do we know what the natural concentrations of mercury in the food chain should be?]   

       No. But we *do* know that there is an absolutely immense amount of mercury pollution caused by gold mining.   

       And, if the oil is burned the wrong way, yes mercury will be released, but we have abundant, constantly improving mercury-removal technologies.   

       As for the amount of mercury pollution contained in the killer whales, compared to the whole, not sure. I do know it is biomagnified in the whales, so ocean-bottom scavengers has best beware.   

       Low end estimates of mercury concentration are 10ppm (some have been found with 80ppm). Assuming an 8-ton animal, that's roughly 80 grams per animal. Or, if the yearly cull is 3000 animals, 240 kg of mercury (I hope my math is right but I haven't been that careful)   

       The US emits 48 tons of mercury currently, but obviously, not all of that enters the food chain- otherwise, the whales would surely all be dead by now from the mind-boggling tonnage released during the gold rush.   

       US mercury pollution is slated to drop 70% by 2018, and even further reductions after that. I don't know if we can reverse the build-up in mercury in the food chain, but we can certainly slow it down.
Madai, Jun 30 2005

       I can't believe this is sane.
Surely there is some means of chemically sequestering and recovering mercury from seawater? No doubt ludicrously expensive as a means of producing mercury, but certainly more cost- effective and whale-friendly than hunting killer whales?
And I missed how you plan to dispose of a bunch of dead killer whales without ultimately releasing their mercury content into the environment.

Finally, there is another reason why this idea seems silly. We currently harvest many *millions* of tons of fish from the oceans annually, and presumably many of these have significant (albeit lower) mercury levels. If these fish have an averae mercury content even 1% of that in killer whales, then culling killer whales is going to have a negligible effect in comparison.
Basepair, Jun 30 2005

       The thing is, the fish we remove aren't enough to counteract all the pollution.   

       As for the disposal, thermal depolymerization. It will seperate all the mercury, and leave only oil, minerals, and water.   

       And also, hunting killer whales *is* whale-friendly, because killer whales attack other whales, and some of those targets are endangered.
Madai, Jun 30 2005

       //The thing is, the fish we remove aren't enough to counteract all the pollution.//
You miss the point. The point is that harvesting 24,000 tonnes of killer whale is silly and insignificant when compared to the tens of *millions* of tons of fish which we already harvest. If the latter is not having any impact on reducing mercury, the former will certainly not.
Just stand back a minute and consider what you're proposing: you want to use a small number of large, rare mammals as a means of sequestering mercury. Silly.
Basepair, Jun 30 2005

       /how you plan to dispose of a bunch of dead killer whales without ultimately releasing their mercury content into the environment./ -   

       Mass mummification. A large temple will be erected in Death Valley to house the whale mummies.
bungston, Jun 30 2005

       [Madai], I forgot about the improvements in smokestack emissions. You've now got me convinced of the benefit.
Laughs Last, Jul 01 2005

       Obviously we need plenty of Gold, to form an amalgam. If Madai is good enough to send me some gold, I promise that I will throw it into the sea.
Ling, Jul 01 2005

       //You've now got me convinced of the benefit.//
This is still silly. Even the fish *waste* (bones, guts, skin) that are disposed of by the food industry contain far more mercury in total than the proposed harvest of killer whales. It will not work.
Basepair, Jul 01 2005

       Get the little ones interested in the temperature.
daseva, Jul 01 2005

       //I suspect a fundemental flaw in this whole arguement, and that is, where do you suppose mercury comes from?// Actually, I presume that it's fairly proven that current mercury levels in the oceans include a significant contribution from industrial waste - mercury which would otherwise not be finding its way into the oceans at nearly such a high rate. But this scheme is still silly.
Basepair, Jul 01 2005

       The hay is finally cut here and the mosquitoes have made a huge retreat back across the drying fields to the river. The food chain is active as the coyote and many types of birds scower the exposed homes of mice, etc. I find a baby mouse as I cut the lawn by the field. It squirms cutely in my hand and I wonder what to feed it until it suddenly stops moving. I must have injured it with the lawnmower. Within a minute I have to rethink its position in the food chain.
mensmaximus, Jul 01 2005

Basepair, Jul 01 2005

       The cat's been gone all day for some reason.
mensmaximus, Jul 02 2005

       //Mass mummification. A large temple will be erected in Death Valley to house the whale mummies.//   

       Just to make it clear... thermal depolymerization would break the entire whale down, and separate the mercury from the fuel.   

       Mercury is far more abundant in the earth's crusts, compared to the oceans. Traditionally, mercury was mined from cinnabar. Methyl-mercury bioaccumulates more easily than the other forms.
Madai, Nov 07 2005

       You want to stop the problems of mercury poisoning? Why not just kill all humans? </bender>
shapu, Nov 07 2005


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