How the ocean’s TINIEST organisms feed YOU!
Even though plankton are just tiny animals and plants, you would never dream of grabbing a bowl of plankton and milk for breakfast. However, in some countries, plankton are considered a delicious snack. I learned this first hand while traveling in Taiwan. There, I happened upon a bag of dried jellyfish- conveniently located between the bubble gum and the potato chips- in a local drug store. Feeling adventurous, I gave it a try. The flavor was… interesting.
Though most of us will never directly consume plankton, we all have plankton to thank for keeping our bellies full. Plankton are the base of the marine food web, providing energy, in the form of carbon, to all of the organism in the ocean, and also to land organisms that consume “seafood.” This includes fish, birds, shellfish, bears, large marine mammals and even humans.
Seafood composes a huge proportion of the global human diet with maritime industries, such as fishing, composing a large proportion of many local and national economies. Fish in particular, are the “meat” of the industry. The tastiest fish species exclusively consume plankton in the initial stages of their life cycle.
Just like humans, it turns out most fish are very picky eaters. They don’t want to eat just any old plankton! What kind of plankton fish like to eat is usually based on how nutritious the plankton is or how well the fish is designed to catch it. If the right plankton are not available or nutritious enough, a population of fish may not be able to survive.
Identifying what can change how much carbon, in the form of plankton, is available to fish is important for predicting how many fish will be available for our consumption in the future. Many things can change the amount of carbon available to a fish: Season, temperature, pollution, and currents, to name a few. Alarmingly, there is also evidence that climate change will decrease the amount of plankton available for fish to eat.
Plankton are the most important part of the marine food web. Without them, there is no seafood. So next time you reach for a sushi roll, keep in mind that it’s plankton that are giving you the energy for the rest of the day. Do them a favor, and conserve a little energy in return.