Pesky shipworms could become a sustainable superfood

23 November 2023

Photo: University of Plymouth

Naked Clams are saltwater mollusks that are the planet’s fastest-growing bivalve, which can reach a length of 30cm in just six months. This feat they achieve by burrowing into waste wood and converting it into nutritious protein. Their growth rate could make them an ecofriendly superfood, say experts.

This would mean quite a turnaround in the reputation of these creatures, also known as shipworms, which have traditionally been seen as a pest because they bore through any wood left in seawater, including ships, piers and docks.

In a pilot, scientists at Cambridge University and the University of Plymouth cultivated these clams in a self-contained system and found that the levels of Vitamin B12 in them are higher than in most other bivalves and almost twice as much as in blue mussels.

By adding an algae-based feed to cultured Naked Clams they can also be fortified with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are essential nutrients for human health and are found in oily fish like salmon. Better yet: the clams taste great too.

“Naked Clams taste like oysters, they’re highly nutritious and they can be produced with a really low impact on the environment,” stresses David Willer, a fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology who was an author of a study.

Willer and his colleagues devised a fully enclosed aquaculture system for cultivating the clams. Their system can be controlled in all its aspects and so could be set up even in urban settings, far from the sea, they say.

“Naked Clam aquaculture has never been attempted before. We’re growing them using wood that would otherwise go to landfill or be recycled, to produce food that’s high in protein and essential nutrients like Vitamin B12,” Willer says.

Naked Clams have no shells and this saves them plenty of energy as they grow, which they can do much faster than mussels and oysters, which can take two years to reach a harvestable size.

Yet for all these benefits Naked Clams are not on the menu anywhere except in places like the Philippines where are eaten either raw or battered and fried like calamari. Elsewhere too they could provide a rich source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients, the scientists note.

“We urgently need alternative food sources that provide the micronutrient-rich profile of meat and fish but without the environmental cost, and our system offers a sustainable solution,” says Reuben Shipway, an epert ay at the University of Plymouth’s School of Biological & Marine Sciences.

“Switching from eating beef burgers to Naked Clam nuggets may well become a fantastic way to reduce your carbon footprint,” Shipway notes.

The scientists say they are in the process of trying out different types of waste wood and algal feed in their system to optimise the clams’ growth, taste and nutritional profile.

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