Sea Squirts: Slimy Nuisance or Billion-Dollar Industry?

Written by on December 18, 2013 in Marine Life

A new industry may soon open up for tunicates.

Bulb tunicates.

Bulb tunicates (Clavelina sp.). Photo credit: NOAA.

Tunicates, or sea squirts, are a group of marine animals that more closely resemble blobs than the vertebrates to which they are related. They can be found in every ocean and spend most of their lives attached to docks or the bottom of boats where they feed on plankton. Some live alone and others live in large colonies.

Because tunicates like to attach themselves to docks, rocks, and boats, they can be a nuisance for boat owners and shellfish farmers. Instead of a seeing a nuisance, however, Christofer Troedsson of Uni Research saw an opportunity. When their water content is removed, tunicates are 55 percent protein. They are also the only animals that produce cellulose. These qualities make them interesting options for feed and biofuel.

In a small-scale experiment that began six months ago, Troedsson and others placed tunicates in the sea. They were recently harvest by a group of eight people who worked for two weeks to collect 30 tons of the ‘ocean weeds’. The tunicates were washed, pressed, dried and ground into animal and fish feed.

Feeding farmed fish is typically the biggest challenge and often makes aquaculture (for carnivorous species) unsustainable. If protein from tunicates can be used as fish feed, it will provide fish farmers with a cheaper, more sustainable option.

Now, the experiment has turned into a large-scale pilot project.

“Production has so far exceeded our greatest expectations,” Troedsson said in a news release.

Uni Research and the University of Bergen have teamed up with the Research Council of Norway to help turn this project into a commercial industry. Right now, researchers are experimenting with different structures (ropes, mesh, and others) to see which one produces the most tunicates. They are also trying out different methods of harvesting, washing and pressing to get the most product.

Learn more here: Slimy tunicates may be worth billions.

Tunicate colony.

Tunicate colony. Photo credit: mentalblock_DMD via photopin cc.

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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  1. Wonderful article on tunicates. We are constantly looking for factoids to share with our guests on our mangrove ecology trips. We see lots of tunicates but other than some light marine biology facts we don’t have a whole lot to share with the lay ecology enthusiasts. Thanks to your article we now have some interesting factoids. Thank you

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Jeff. I’m happy to hear that you’ll be sharing this cool study with others!