Biofouling: What Is It?

What The Heck is Biofoul?

Biofouling is a huge and devastating issue, but what is it? Biofouling includes a long list of stowaway species, such as mussels, barnacles, plants and animals that latch onto vessels or other artificial surfaces and cause problems. These problems include blockages, material decay, and most relevant to cruises, latching. 

When Cruise ships dock and remain idle at port for a period of time, the largest surface area of the vessel called the hull, which is what touches the water, accumulates local marine life species. These species can number in the thousands, and effectively latch onto the ship for a long time. When the cruise departs and reaches a distant destination, it will bring what people are now calling “dirty hull syndrome” into different ports and introduce foreign species into local ecosystems. These organisms can have a devastating impact on the ecological equilibrium of any environment, and according to the International Maritime Organization biofouling has “been identified as a major threat to the world’s oceans and to the conservation of biodiversity.”

As seaborne transportation and trade continues to rise, biofouling does as well, and the measures taken to prevent this spread of invasive aquatic species can be argued as insufficient and fluctuant across the world. Biofouling also reduces the hydrodynamics of a ship with the added bulk of organisms on the hull, which increases energy consumption and thus greenhouse gas emissions. This means biofouling also has a significant role in the amount of air pollution that emanates from ships, and is therefore an agent for climate change. 

How Can We Stop It?

Biofouling is preventable. Different countries have different approaches to tackling the issue, and some have proven to be more diligent than others. Earlier in January, the Biosecurity Department Of The New Zealand Government made headlines by prohibiting the Cunard Queen Elizabeth ship from docking until they cleaned the hull. This was the fourth ship New Zealand stopped from entering sensitive waterways, and is a growing practice with other countries. 

The IMO, the Convention on Biological Diversity, several UNEP Regional Seas Conventions, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the Secretariat of the Pacific Region Environment Programme all recognize Biofouling as a major issue in need of publication. 

There are a multitude of possible measures to prevent biofouling which cruise lines and cargo ship companies have slowly been introducing into their vessels. One of the main ways is to practice design that considers where and how organisms can latch, grow, and hide across the hull of ships. Creating fewer niches in the hull, such as the bow thrusters or sea chest, will help facilitate prevention and maintenance of biofoul. Applying antifoul is another common alternative. Antifoul is a coating which is applied to the hull of a ship and is made mostly of copper. Antifoul, however, is also toxic to marine life, and although it does reduce biofoul, it is less a holistic solution and more a temporary prevention. 

Overall, government representatives and company leaders need to sound more alarms and increase public awareness of the harm of biofoul. Besides destroying subaquatic ecosystems through the introduction of invasive species, biofoul also reduces energy efficiency and results in a larger carbon footprint across the maritime board. If you own a boat yourself, make sure you regularly check the hull for subaquatic species, and do your part in preventing biodiversity loss and ecological collapse.