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March 3, 2008


20-Year Research Relationship Helps Develop Techniques for Raising Marine Life in the Desert

NEW YORK, March 3, 2008 – For 20 years, Dr. John Lee, Distinguished Professor of Biology at The City College of New York (CCNY), has spent the winter recess as a volunteer scientist at the National Center for Mariculture (NCM) in Eilat, Israel. NCM is a small research laboratory that is developing new technologies for raising marine products for human consumption. 

But this year’s trip nearly ended before it began. A few days before he was to depart from New York, Professor Lee learned that a fire had destroyed NCM’s main building. Since he made all the arrangements to fly to Israel and had rented an apartment for the five-week stay, he decided to go anyway, not knowing what to expect.

Mariculture is particularly important for Israel, a country where fresh water is a precious and limited commodity. The abundant quantities of seawater that can be drawn from the Red and Mediterranean Seas could be efficiently utilized to grow various kinds of marine crops in the desert.

Through Professor Lee’s research, The City College of New York is participating in the development of new food resources for the world’s exploding population. “We are part of the pioneering effort to bring mariculture into the main part of the human food market now that humankind has nearly exhausted the once-abundant gathering from the sea,” he said.

NCM first contacted Professor Lee, an expert on symbiosis of one-celled organisms known as “living sands,” to address a problem that was making clams and oysters being raised for the export market unfit for human consumption. In the plastic-lined sedimentation tanks where scientists had hoped to grow diatones, a source of nutrients for the shellfish, they were getting dinaflagelates, a deadly organism commonly known as red tide.

Professor Lee traveled to Israel to assess the situation. To make mariculture work, a method would be needed to control the growth of the toxic algae, he realized. When he returned to CCNY, he discovered a relationship between the number of fish being raised and the amount of trace elements – silicon and iron – that would have to be added to the sedimentation tanks to prevent the growth of dinaflagelates.

Since then, Professor Lee returned to Eilat every winter to investigate a new problem for NCM. Over the course of the academic year, he would complete his investigation back at The City College. His contributions have helped NCM develop techniques for raising sea bream, Chilean sea bass and abalone that have been commercialized by kibbutzim (collective farms) such as Adag and Dag Soof. 

When he arrived this year, the clean-up had already begun. The first things he saw were two piles of rubble in front of the main building for examination by the insurance company; one was just junk, and the other was barely recognizable as the remains of scientific instruments. A few walls were all that remained of the building. The nutrient analysis, microbiology, genetics, larval-rearing and pathology labs were gone, as were all of the central support facilities. 

What he saw next was totally unexpected. The remaining buildings were beehives of activity. Scientists and technicians were working in former storerooms or crowded elbow-to-elbow in remaining office spaces. Their attitude was upbeat. They vowed to overcome the setback and make good on the grants and contracts they already had.

Immediately after the fire, the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences, another research center located in Eilat, extended a hand. Located at the far end of town, it cleared space in its already overcrowded facility for the NCM Fish Genetics Department.  Professor Lee accepted a generous offer for office and lab space there during his stay in Eilat and he commuted between the two facilities. 

Despite this loss, NCM’s future is filled with promise, according to Professor Lee. Currently he is participating in a new USAID-MERC project among the United States, Israel and Egypt to develop new marine polyculture systems for the Sinai and Negev deserts. 

Simply stated, polyculture systems are a series of interconnected ponds that produce many different crops in the most efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways. Scooped out of the desert with a bulldozer and lined with polyethylene, the ponds contain roughly 40 cubic meters of seawater piped in from the sea. 

Fish are grown in the first pond. The seawater from the first pond containing fish waste and uneaten food flows to the next unit in the system that takes advantage of the nutrients flowing out of the fish-rearing pond and the abundant sunlight. The second unit, which sucks up the nutrients, can grow seaweed, pickle-weed, or phytoplankton. 

These products are then fed to marine animals such as clams, oysters, abalone, sea urchins, etc., which are themselves valuable export cash crops. The clean seawater can then be recycled back to the first pond.

“Insurance proceeds will surely help to restore the laboratory, but considerably to a lesser extent than it was before the fire,” Professor Lee said. “The fish brood stock of the cultured fish, much of the work products of certain departments, personal libraries and records cannot easily, or ever, in some cases, be replaced. 

“The scientists I talked to made it clear that everyone can join in their dream to make Israel’s southern deserts bloom with marine fish farms. They badly need funds to buy replacement modern scientific instrumentation, purchase a computer data back up system, buy instruments for nutrient analysis, get new books for the library, construct a new larval-rearing tank system and other items that are essential for future progress.”

Donations can be sent c/o Mr. Maurice Barbash, North American Friends of IOLR, 265 West Main St., Box 699, Babylon, NY 11702.

About The City College of New York

For more than 160 years, The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. Over 14,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; The School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture (SAUDLA); The School of Education; The Grove School of Engineering, and The Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education. For additional information, visit www.ccny.cuny.edu.