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Researchers at the Univesity of Cambridge developed the world’s first system of farming shipworms, hoping to rebrand a marine pest into a food-producing system. The “Naked Clams” are the world’s fastest-growing bivalves and can reach 30cm long in six months. They do this by burrowing into waste wood and converting it into highly nutritious protein.

  • Cambridge scientists developed the world’s first system of farming shipworms.
  • The worms have high Vitamin B12 levels and can be fed with other essential human nutrients such as omega-3.

The researchers found that the levels of Vitamin B12 levels in the Naked Clams were higher than in most other bivalves – and almost twice the amount found in blue mussels – the researchers found. Furthermore, adding an algae-based feed to the system can fortify the Naked Clams with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids – nutrients essential for human health.

“They taste like oysters”

Shipworms have traditionally been viewed as a pest because they bore through any wood immersed in seawater, including ships, piers, and docks. The researchers developed a fully enclosed aquaculture system that can be controlled entirely, eliminating the water quality and food safety concerns often associated with mussel and oyster farming. And the modular design means it can be used in urban settings, far from the sea.

“Naked Clams taste like oysters, they’re highly nutritious, and they can be produced with a really low impact on the environment,” said Dr David Willer, Henslow Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and first author of the report.

He added: “Naked Clam aquaculture has never been attempted before. We’re growing them using wood that would otherwise go to landfill or be recycled to produce food high in protein and essential nutrients like Vitamin B12.”

New white meat

Scientifically named Teredinids, these creatures have no shells but are classed as bivalve shellfish and related to oysters and mussels. Because the Naked Clams don’t put energy into growing shells, they grow much faster than mussels and oysters, which can take two years to reach a harvestable size. The report is published in the journal Sustainable Agriculture.

Wild shipworms are eaten in the Philippines – raw or battered and fried like calamari. But for British consumers, the researchers think Naked Clams will be more popular as a ‘white meat’ substitute in processed foods like fish fingers and fishcakes.

“We urgently need alternative food sources that provide the micronutrient-rich profile of meat and fish but without the environmental cost, and our system offers a sustainable solution,” said Dr Reuben Shipway at the University of Plymouth’s School of Biological & Marine Sciences, senior author of the report.

The research is a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and Plymouth. It has attracted funding from The Fishmongers’ Company, British Ecological Society, Cambridge Philosophical Society, Seale-Hayne Trust, and BBSRC. The team is now trialing different types of waste wood and algal feed in their system to optimize the Naked Clams’ growth, taste, and nutritional profile – and is working with Cambridge Enterprise to scale-up and commercialize the system.