Oysters used to spy on water quality, save fish


Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

New water testing technology is turning WA’s oysters into spies.

The device called “Spyvalve” is a biological sensor that is attached to bivalves such as oysters, shellfish and mussels, to detect if their shells remain closed – an indicator that they are ill.

Murdoch’s Harry Butler Institute and marine biologist Dr Alan Cottingham says he hopes the technology will  highlight water quality issues before they lead to mass fish deaths.

“The main problem with fish kills is that when they die, they sink and after three days they then float and that’s when the public see it and the problem can be addressed,” Dr Cottingham says.

The sensors, coined “bivalve backpacks”, are placed on opposing valves and the electromagnetic energy between them is measured, a closed shell means greater magnetic energy.

“When bivalves are in their normal position their shells are open, every now and then they close their shells for short periods and for longer periods when they are under stress,” Dr Cottingham says.

“Once we know what the causes (of shell closes) are, we can help prevent fish kills in the future”

Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Fisheries Program manager Adrian Meder says this new approach is exciting and bivalves have the ability to detect water pollutants some top laboratory equipment cannot.

“Bivalve shellfish like mussels and oysters have been water quality experts for millions of years, and they do the job for free,” Mr Meder says.

He says water monitoring is an expensive ongoing business, and restoring waterways isn’t a high enough priority for decision makers.

“Almost all of Australia’s coastal and estuarine marine environment and the water catchments that flow into it have been severely impacted by human-induced climate change, agricultural runoff, pollution, or development” he says.

“Spyvalve” is already producing real-time data and Dr Cottingham claims it’s probably one of the best low budget alternatives for water quality monitoring.