Ascidian and the climate crisis

11 March, 2020

There’s something special about ascidian. For millennia, writers, philosophers and naturalists have been trying to figure out what this organism is. Aristotle, Homer, Darwin and our very own polymath August Strindberg have all paid attention to seadragons. Is it a marine plant, an animal or somewhere in between?

We start on the Swedish west coast, in an industrial building on Ängsvägen in Stenungsund. It’s 9:30 in the morning on a Monday in November. At the company Marin Feed there is a coffee break. Coffee maker and almond cube. Company founder Fredrik Norén explains:

– Here we grow ascidian, cultivate and harvest. And we make as many products as we can out of this ascidian.

It all started very well for Fredrik and his colleagues. In the summer of 2016, Marin Biogas started its operations, after many years of preparatory work and research. Funded by government research grants, they began to grow ascidians on an industrial scale. The aim was to produce fuel in the form of biogas via a digestion process of the marine mantle animal.

“The history of man and of the mermaid is, at least in part, one and the same.”

For a few years, the company harvested millions of ascidians from its plant outside Lysekil. The idea was to offer a climate-neutral alternative for producing fuel that also cleans the oceans. When the little seahorses feed, they also filter unnecessary nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen out of the seawater and, by their very existence, help to reduce eutrophication, just like blue mussels do. In addition, the residues from the decomposition of ascidians can be used as environmentally friendly fertiliser.

Fredrik Norén
Fredrik Norén holds a ascidian in his hand.

A success story and a success story. Could have been. The only problem was that no one was interested in the company’s biogas.

Zero percent willingness to buy our product, says Fredrik. Nobody wanted to buy or invest in our biogas or in our plant. The biogas industry bases its business on waste residues and it is free of charge. No one is prepared to pay for raw materials for biogas.

So there they stood with their start-up company and a plant for harvesting and rotting septic tank. And no one was willing to pay for their product.

Zero percent willingness to buy our product, says Fredrik. Nobody wanted to buy or invest in our biogas or in our plant. The biogas industry bases its business on waste residues and it is free of charge. No one is prepared to pay for raw materials for biogas.

Fredrik Norén
– Now we have started to produce a flavouring for cooking boiled sole, a kind of umami. And star chefs on the West Coast give our umami top marks,” says Fredrik Norén.

Fredrik Norén believes that sea lungs are an excellent raw material, full of proteins and beneficial marine fatty acids, which grow naturally in our waters. Therefore, the the company is reconstructed. The idea has been refined and transferred to a new company, Marin Feed, which continues on the basic idea but with new goals for production.

Now we have started manufacturing a flavoring agent for cooking boiled monkfish, a kind of umami. And star chefs on the west coast give our umami the highest rating, says Fredrik Norén.

But umami is really a spur of the moment. Fishmeal is the great hope for Marin Feed’s future business. And a certified feed for aquarium fish.

The it is not only in Sweden that there is an industrial interest in ascidians. A similar project in Bergen has received Norwegian government money, to produce biogas and fish food for the salmon industry. Elsewhere, attempts are being made to ascidians productive as food or fuel.

For a long time, monkfish has been on the menu in many parts of the world, as a delicacy from the sea. So why not here too, asks Fredrik Norén.

The great hopes are pinned on the cultivation of seaweed.

And here the story could go on about the new aquaculture that is growing in various parts of our waters. Where algae, mussels, crayfish and fish are grown to meet the growing population’s desire for seafood. It would could be about how aquaculturists fight against traditions, authorities and summer cottage owners on the West Coast.

It is a struggle, says Fredrik Norén, but we are working on it, convinced that one day it will pay off.

But this story now wants to take a different path.

“We have exploited aquatic life without ever having to face the consequences of our own exploitation or our own violence.”


En Upstairs in a university building from the 1990s in Örebro sits a literary researcher, specializing in August Strindberg, and spending days pondering the same seamen grown and harvested on the west coast. Erik van Ooijen’s office is small and cramped. Plastic carpet and oak laminate desk. Computer with screen saver, piles of paper and books. And coffee from a vending machine in the corridor outside.

Erik belongs to a generation of researchers in the humanities where interest in the environment and climate has become the focus. And ascidians turn out to have a particularly distinct function in this context. Erik van Ooijen believes that the seafood industry can serve as an example of how we try to find solutions that in fact can give us new problems.

– I’m not interested in formulating a criticism of this particular company, they do no more harm than most other businesses. But it tells us something about our approach to nature as a raw material. And perhaps especially about our approach to the aquatic life that is so alien to us.

Örebro University, Nova seen from the east.

Seedlings may seem anonymous, where they sit perfectly still throughout their lives and sift seawater. Immobile. But ascidians actually play a much more important role in human cultural and natural history than one might think.

– They may not show up in a basic course in literary history, but if you start looking for these mermaids, they appear, all over the place, like a kind of fossil in the layers of literary history. The oldest mention is by Homer, says Erik.

I Illiad’s story of Achilles includes the mermaid, as a condescending metaphor for a beaten opponent on the battlefield. The ancient philosopher Aristotle devoted a relatively large amount of time to the common loon, during his biological field studies in the Greek archipelago. Charles Darwin mentions the animal in On the Origin of Man. And August Strindberg writes about ascidians in his studies of plant biology.

erik van ooijen
Erik van Ooijen
Photo: Martin Widman

For Strindberg and many others, it is the existence of mermaids somewhere between plant and animals that fascinate. Unlike all other animals, the common seal lives his life in immobility. They do not move in the slightest to hunt their prey. “As a water-filled bag with genitals anchored to a stone” – the animal has described by a world-leading biologist of our time. For Aristotle the difference is animals and plants through movement – one remains still, while the other the category is variable. Seabirds refuse to be included in that categorisation.

And Erik van Ooijen says that it was Strindberg who led him to an interest in seahorses. He was fascinated by Strindberg’s peculiar ideas about evolution, written during the period when he left fiction to become a chemist on the fringes of scientific knowledge. But always well informed about the latest research. Strindberg, for example, introduced the peculiar evolutionary idea that plants evolved from animals that stopped moving. The animals simply realised how inconvenient it was to depend on their mobility to survive. Some got tired of the hectic animal life and reverted to their animal organs, taking root and living a quieter and more peaceful life as plants. And he drew inspiration from new discoveries about ascidians.

august strindberg
August Strindberg was not only a writer, but was also interested in evolutionary theory.

In the mid-19th century, an important discovery put ascidians in the middle of the evolutionary heat. Until then, ascidians were regarded as a primitive intermediate stage between the plant and animal kingdoms. Completely still, filtering water. But then the Russian embryologist Alexander Kovalevsky made an important observation that was to change the role of ascidians. In his laboratory, he discovered that, unlike adults, the young seal is not immobile at all. It swims around. In addition, as fry, the common seal has a brain attached to a dorsal cord. This is a vertebrate-like animal, which after a few days of free-swimming chooses to settle on rocks and stones to form large colonies of ascidians. To survive in the tough competition of the marine environment, it “eats its brains”. It simply dissolves the organs that require too much energy for a sedentary life. Recycling the way of the mermaids. And as an adult, it becomes a sedentary plant-like underwater animal that captures nutrients by siphoning water. In through one siphon, out through another. On the way, the water passes through a very fine-grained filter where nutrients get trapped. It simply no longer needs to move to hunt for food, but feeds on what passes through the animal’s body.

The discovery meant that it was now possible to record the ascidian as a stage in the development of life, says Erik. Which Darwin also does, he writes the sea pouch as a stage in development up to what is man. The history of man and the history of the sea ascidian are at least partially one and the same.

Later time molecular analyses have confirmed this and place ascidians very closer to vertebrates than previously thought. Seadogs have played a important role in the exploration of our family tree, of which man is one of the buds. The seagull is another.

“The theory of evolution really shows that there is no necessary direction, no staircase or higher and lower in the true sense. A manatee is no less successful than a human; both have managed to survive for the same length of time, adapting as needed to their environments.”

For August Strindberg, on the other hand, was a proof of the “reverse” evolution – from animal to plant. Erik van Ooijen argues that although Strindberg’s basic idea may sound peculiar, but it also carries a real insight that the theory of evolution does not have a goal, or direction. As it often was described in Strindberg’s time, even by Darwin: “man, the greatest ornament and masterpiece of the universe “. Everything seemed to point towards man as crown of creation, which reflects an older conception of nature, where nature is organized hierarchically in a kind of step. On the first ledges there are the inanimate matter – stones and crystals, on the next step are the plants, one step further up lower animals, then higher animals and eventually the throne man at the top. In the schematic world picture, the mermaid is at the bottom on the stairs, right at the transition between plants and animals.

– But the theory of evolution really shows that there is no necessary direction, no staircase or higher and lower in the true sense,” says Erik. A manatee is no less successful than a human; both have managed to survive for the same length of time, adapting as necessary to their environments.

For Erik van Ooijen, Strindberg’s apparently backward perspective has a value, as a kind of eye-opener. It forces us to challenge our preconceptions, which is still very much governed by a worldview in which man is enthroned at the top of the the development ladder. As the crown of creation and in its essence separate from its surrounding reality. Strindberg, on the other hand, showed an openness to organic perspectives that are missing in our world.

We can’t take for granted that we know exactly how others ecological contexts and other life forms and how we are connected to them. Reading Strindberg in this way can be a lesson in openness both to the others, nature as alien, but also about nature as a context that we are whether they want to or not.

It is not possible to delineate individual organisms as separate from an ecology or environment or other creatures. Animals are not independent of plants and humans are not independent of either; things interact in ways that require us to be open to connections. Also invisible connections. There may be links that we may not be aware of.

“In everything natural there is something marvellous,” wrote Aristotle almost 2500 years ago. In everything that exists in nature, even in what to us is the most insignificant of existences, there is a piece of the puzzle that contributes to an understanding of the whole in which it has its place.

Or as Strindberg said: everything is in everything, and everything can become everything.

A surprisingly modern view of nature, which is being noticed by modern plant neurobiologists today, says Erik.

But we are still partly stuck in an old and rooted worldview, which describes life on earth as a staircase, and which according to Erik van Oijen is the explanation or the reason why we live today with a nearly desolate planet. The violent approach we have to everything that is further down the the steps of life. Among them are ascidians.

Erik van Ooijen counts himself among what has for some time been called post-humanist research. A field of research with increasing interest in the ecological relationships where man is included. And a critique of the worldview that describes man as something significantly different from the surrounding environment and nature. A criticism of a worldview based on a kind of violence against the surrounding environment, a unthinking exploitation and depletion of nature. And particularly hard hit is aquatic life,” says literary scholar Erik van Oooijen:

The water surface becomes a clear division between our world and an alien world that we have allowed ourselves to exploit without considering the consequences. We can experience clear-cutting as a very violent intervention in nature. We can describe a mine as a wound in nature. But we don’t see what happens under the surface in the same way. So we have been able to exploit aquatic life and aquatic ecologies without ever having to face the consequences of our own exploitation or violence.

still water
TIERP 20170912. Still water by the beach with stones and rocks. Photo. Magnus Eriksson / TT

Back at the factory in Stenungsund. Fredrik Norén is clearly fascinated by the animal he is trying to create an industry around.

I could talk a lot about the ascidian, it is very well researched. Between one and ten scientific articles are published a day about ascidian. And we are grateful for that, we can use the knowledge in our production.

Outside the large sheet metal building where Marin Feed has its sole production, Fredrik animal. They are stored in large plastic buckets, filled to the brim with ascidians.

This is what they look like – like sloppy cocks. Or long sausages. And inside the casing of cellulose is the animal itself. It sucks in water through a hole in the upper part of the body, which is pumped through a fine mesh filter where nutrients are captured, and then it sends out clean water at the other end. The particles captured are transported down to the stomach, where an enzyme breaks down the food to extract the carbohydrates and fats that the animal needs. And then it poops out what it doesn’t need at the other end. Not so far from how most other animals function, says Fredrik Norén.

And he could have gone on for a long time. There is so much that captivates him with seahorses. Not least for the opportunity to grow on a large scale.

We are still quite undeveloped when it comes to aquaculture in Sweden, elsewhere in the world they are far ahead. We try to work as farmers, but agriculture has developed over thousands of years, we have really only started our aquaculture. We sow and reap like the farmers but have not yet streamlined our operations in the same way.

Says Fredrik and takes us further into the premises where they cook ascidian in several large pots, for the production of the ascidian fund. He shows us the dried sea chicks and the powdered fishmeal. The possibilities are endless for the seafood industry, it seems.

When we leave the industrial premises on Ängsvägen in Stenungsund, it will soon start to rain. Fredrik Norén and his colleagues continue to cook ascidians, convinced that a vibrant aquaculture and aquaculture is what we need to meet the challenges we face. The post-humanist perspective is far removed from the everyday conversations of the coffee room.

Fredrik Norén cooking
In the industrial premises in Stenungssund, Fredrik Norén is boiling sea kittens
Photo: Martin Widman

The Literary Scientist Erik van Ooijen, on the other hand, along with a growing group of researchers with posthumanist point of view, urges us to raise our gaze. He is careful not to specific criticism of Fredrik and the company in Stenungssund, but uses the seafood industry as an example of ignoring the ecological context we ourselves are part of.

– Climate change, global warming and the mass extinction of species show that we are not at all independent from the nature we exploit,” says Erik. We are constantly embedded and included in the complex relationships that are nature itself. But in denying these relationships, we are acting in a fundamentally unreasonable way that risks making our own survival as a species impossible.

Perhaps, Erik van Ooijen seems to think, the worldview that has dominated our thinking for a very long time is causing us to damage and destroy nature in our efforts to save it. Aquaculture in that guise becomes another tool in the box humanity is pulling out to extract resources from an already ravaged and plundered nature. Basically, it is a worldview in which man is a privileged being, elevated above all other life.

We must try to think beyond the human-centered norm that naturally dominates all human thinking, be it humanistic or scientific oriented. It leads to the violent treatment of other lives simply because they are not valued as life.

Text and photo: Martin Widman

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