What We Can Learn From Sharks

This article first appeared in the March, 2011 issue of Northwest Yachting.


You gotta love mankind. We get it, but sometimes it takes a while.


Poison is, by definition, bad stuff. The natural world uses it right and left, usually in modest concentrations and quantities, for survival. But we smart humans figured out that if you make it strong enough, and use enough of it, it’ll help us kill things we don’t want.  And, of course, that almost always means a profit for someone. Not that there’s anything wrong with profit. But it seems that usually the folk using the poison get away without having to clean it up.


We use it on plants and animals. We use it on each other. And of course we use antifouling paints.


For boats, copper bottom paint is brutal, stupidly expensive, only marginally effective and by definition toxic to the environment. It has to be renewed every year or two to be much good at all. But for a while it’s been the best thing going.


Over the centuries antifouling poisons have done lots of damage to the world’s waters and the creatures that inhabit them. Sure, bottom painting has kept boatyards and paint manufacturers busy. And of course there are the environmental lawyers who now get into a feeding frenzy at the first whiff of copper bottom paint.


It’s pretty safe to say that all of those bottom paint beneficiaries would find something else to do if bottom paint were no more. The lawyers who have gone after boatyards are often likened to sharks, which is completely unfair to sharks. They’re actually more like remoras, attaching themselves to an issue, slowing down progress and eating whatever they can without killing the host. But I digress. What I meant to point out was that remoras don’t actually clean sharks, as some have previously thought. Turns out sharks have built-in, non-toxic antifouling.


And while boaters snarl at environmentalists, and environmentalists wave their remoras at the boatyards, sharks are cruising the oceans without a lick of bottom (or top) growth. Do they know something we don’t? Yep.


When was the last time you saw a shark with barnacles on it? Well, Dr. Anthony Brennan of the University of Florida couldn’t remember seeing a shark with barnacles either. And he gave it a bit more thought. And he felt a shark’s skin. It turns out their skin is very smooth if you caress them front to back, and pretty rough if you caress them back to front. Caressing sharks either way is not really advisable.


Brennan decided to put that skin under the microscope. Sharkskin has a definite microscopic pattern to it that makes it very difficult for tiny critters like bacteria or algae to grab hold and multiply. With nothing to grab onto, the critters leave or die.


He thought that maybe, just maybe, mankind could try to replicate the ancient shark technology and find some useful purpose. He founded Sharklet Technologies, and after exposure on CBS Sunday morning and PBS Nova, a lot of attention is now being focused on sharkskin.


Who Can Benefit


The health care world could very well be the first and most important beneficiary. Hospitals are fighting a tough battle with bacteria. That hospital smell we all know and love doesn’t always mean a sterile facility. Bacteria are getting smarter, even when we’re not. An increasing number of high profile in-hospital infections are a sign that the critters are getting tougher and more resourceful.


What if, instead of bombing them with chemicals, we present them with a surface where they can’t grow? Especially in those hard-to-reach places like catheters. Even in places like countertops. Ever miss a spot when wiping down a table?


It’s a critical, timely issue that deserves immediate attention. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) claims many lives already, and is seemingly getting tougher to combat.


Health care may come first, but we boaters aren’t actually that far down on the to-do list.


The US military, which has some dubious spending habits, has backed some that have helped boaters a lot. GPS is one of those. Sharklet may be another. The US Navy has some of the same problems we have with boats. Dirty ship bottoms use more fuel, and it costs a lot to paint them. And, oh yeah, it’s POISON! So, when the ONR (Office of Naval Research) heard about this sharkskin stuff, they contributed some military might (money) to developing it.


How much military might? I couldn’t find out, but it’s in the millions and it’s ongoing. And it could be money extremely well spent.


Other Skin-deep Solutions


Sharks may have been one of the first, but they’re not the only ones who have focused attention on surface texture.


Sailors might remember when Dennis Conner won the America’s Cup in 1987 off Australia, there was an accompanying Ribletgate. 3M came up with a textured surface that reduced drag and Conner was happy to use it. Some cried foul, and ultimately it was outlawed in most sailing circles. 3M continued its “microreplication technology” research and apparently found some uses for it. Its official name is 3M Drag Reducing Riblet Film.


Lo and behold, it reappeared last year as part of BMW-Oracles reclamation of said America’s Cup. Yes, folk, as if there wasn’t enough technology in those three carbon hulls and the monster wing-sail, it had Riblets as well. Apparently Larry Ellison left absolutely no surface unturned.


Work is ongoing on non-porous, non-toxic ceramic or epoxy surfaces that are just too smooth and hard for the critters to attach to. This seems like a pretty good solution, but it too requires regular bottom cleaning.


And of course the paint companies are hard at work figuring out a solution to the many-millions dollar question of what replaces copper. There are light-activated paint recipes and non-toxic biocides in development. There is even a surface with charged ions to inhibit growth. Hopefully something, or maybe even competing things, will develop.


From what I’m hearing, the shark solution seems pretty smart.




According to Sarah Eder, Sharklet’s VP of marketing, the company’s research is going in two directions. On the one hand they have that military support that rather requires them to look for antifouling solutions. On the other hand, there’s that whole medical world where there are lives at stake and serious profits to be made.


It’s far too early to know what a Sharklet bottom might look like or how it would even get that way. “We’re several years away,” Eder says carefully, “But our research suggests it could be a viable solution to the antifouling challenge.” She’s goes on to say that in preliminary tests 85% of the growth normally found on underwater surfaces doesn’t grow on Sharklet.


OK, that’s good enough to get excited about.


The patterns found at a microscopic level on sharkskin are distinct and can be replicated (see photos). The width of the raised areas is about 1/50th the size of human hair and the depth of pattern is about 2.9 microns. This level of microscopic manufacturing is supremely challenging and might not even have been possible five years ago.


While there’s no way to know how something like this might be applied, Eder doesn’t see it coming in sheets we can slaps on our boats. It’s a lot more likely that it will be a surface that is built in during the manufacturing process. But there are myriad questions that need to be answered. Fiberglass, aluminum and steel all have very different properties.


Just thinking about putting that refined a surface on a hull, and keeping it that way, boggles the mind.


We may be stuck with poison for a while. But with more and more countries limiting or even outlawing copper based paints, the incentives are there for all the creative scientific types to give it their best shot. And who knows what the solutions might look like. Hey, fish don’ t have barnacles either. Barnacles don’t seem to like kelp much. Maybe there’s a scaly or a sea-plant solution, and the shark approach is just a little too prehistoric.


The point is that mankind is just now getting smarter. And it seems altogether possible that sharks would be the ones putting the lawyers out of boatyard lawsuit business.





Flotsam and Jetsam


Mankind may be getting smarter about bottom coatings, but he is still both cruel and stupid about how he treats his fellow creatures. Sharks are some of the most abused animals in the world. Many species are endangered or on the verge of extinction. Bycatch in drift nets or longlines is responsible for up to one shark death per targeted catch. Some shark species have been diminished by as much as 80% in the last decade, and an estimated 50-100 million sharks are killed each year. Since 1980, shark populations have been losing ground.

And in one of the cruelest, most reprehensible acts of man against nature, some fishermen catch sharks, cut off their fins for soup, and then set the live animals free to die slow deaths.






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