With more than 175 species of marine life dependent on its existence, rockweed is considered by scientists to be critical to the ecosystem. But human harvesting of rockweed for use in cosmetics, fertilizers, emulsifiers and dog feed threatens not only the species, but also parts of the ecosystem. Vanessa Constant ’14, natural resources, conducted research over the summer at the Shoals Marine Laboratory to determine the rate of growth of rockweed.
She said she hopes her research will determine the sustainable rate of harvesting the rockweed, as well as which harvesting practices are the most ecologically-friendly. The research is the first step in a broader sustainability initiative, set forth by Prof. Robin Seeley, Constant’s mentor and assistant director at Shoals Marine Laboratory, to ensure the well-being of the entire ecosystem along the coast of Maine.
Constant became involved with the Shoals Marine Laboratory when she was in high school and has conducted research there into college. Constant said her incentive to get involved with the program was two-fold — she was excited to gain the education offered by the opportunity and she felt it nurtured her interest in the environment, she said.
Her project initially started as a literature search of all that was known about rockweed. It eventually progressed, and Constant was involved with the creation of research sites. A site at Shoals and anotherat the Canadian border were selected to grow rockweed and measure its growth rate.
For Constant’s research, stipes, which are the stalks of the rockweed, of similar length and appearance are selected; one is tagged as the control and the other as the experimental. The control stipe is left untouched and its growth is measured over time. The experimental stipe is cut at a length of 16 cm from the root and the length of the stipes, the number of air bladders — the part that enables the plant to photosynthesize — and the direction of growth is measured. This enables the researchers to determine the impact of harvesting on the growth of the seaweed. The project will be monitored over the course of about five years.
Constant’s mentor, Seeley, explained that the benefits of the program included living in a small community and interacting with faculty members on a regular basis. Constant added, “The faculty is tremendously interested in what they are doing and it comes through.”
Even though her research is limited to the summer months, Constant works for Shoals year–round. Constant also serves as the alumni ambassador for the Shoals Marine Laboratory and is responsible for organizing events that highlight opportunities at Shoals. While she is currently undecided about her future, Constant believes that it will be something related to conservation.