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Scientists planned to feed Britain on plankton if food ran out in WWII

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By Nick Enoch and Tamara Cohen, Daily Mail UK
February 23, 2012

It’s not exactly cod ‘n’ chips, is it?

The Second World War had been raging for more than two years, with rationing in force and mounting fears of a U-boat blockade.

Faced with the prospect of food supplies being cut off, a pair of eminent scientists came up with a solution: Let them eat plankton.

They planned to harvest tons of the microscopic creatures from Scottish lochs.

Secret wartime letters just uncovered reveal that Professor Alister Hardy, a marine biologist at Hull University, told colleagues that plankton – the term for a range of drifting organisms found in fresh and sea water – were high in protein and could be ‘tasty’.

He convinced Sir John Graham Kerr, an MP and regius professor of biology at Glasgow University, and they calculated that ten nets could catch enough plankton in 12 hours to feed 357 people.

In 1941 Sir John wrote to Richard Elmhirst, director of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, who appears to have been sceptical: ‘It is simply silly to brush the matter aside as of no importance, when one remembers the sea off our coasts is often soup-like in its richness with nutritive material.

‘No doubt you have tested for yourself the tastiness of some types of plankton.’

Scientists reckoned that nets anchored in Loch Fyne would cost £90,000 and would catch over 26 tons of plankton each day.

Hardy proposed: ‘The plankton would be emptied into containers and conveyed to the nearest pier where it would stand ready to be conveyed by lorry or motor boat to the drying plant.

‘Simple drying plants would be set up at convenient points along the coast and the resulting dry plankton dispatched in sacks to a headquarters factory for testing, sorting, mixing and final preparation into meal…’

‘The anchoring and inspection of nets would be done by motor boats which could also be continually cruising the area investigating the richest regions of plankton.’

Trials went ahead in 1941, 1942 and 1943 but it was found that the season was too short for the scheme to work.

By 1942, the first stockpiles had been harvested, but the plankton proved trickier to catch than the scientists expected, and the project was quietly abandoned.

The letters were found by Geoffrey Moore, emeritus professor in marine biology at the University of London, in the Association’s archive.

He said: ‘I know of only one  person who has tried plankton and he found it rather fishy and gritty.’

‘He wasn’t terribly impressed, but I suppose it would depend on how hungry you were.’

Richard Kirby of the University of Plymouth, the author of a book about plankton called Ocean Drifters – A Secret World Beneath the Waves, said the idea of eating plankton is not so bizarre.

He added: ‘The Germans had similar plans during the war, and there are still people trying to do this today.’

Prof Moore, who is also president of the Society for History of Natural History, said he was not surprised at what he found.

He said: ‘Marine biologists come up with a lot of strange ideas.’

But this scheme was not that odd – there are fisheries for various plankton in Japan and Scandinavia.

‘I’ve been interested for many years in the history of marine biology and for the last ten years have been delving into all sorts of historic marine biology archives.

‘When I found these letters, I thought I would write them up as an academic paper.

‘Sir Alister Hardy thought it was a way he could contribute to the war effort, because he wasn’t in the forces himself.

‘There was plenty of plankton around, but there was the question of how easy it would be to catch. You would need a very large net with a very small mesh.’

‘There would be the problem of the pressure of the water trying to push through a net, which would become clogged up with debris – not to mention basking sharks.’

‘I only know of one person who has tried plankton and he found it rather fishy and gritty. Unlike a prawn, which you can peel, the exoskeleton was still intact.’

‘He wasn’t terribly impressed, but I suppose it would depend on how hungry you were.’

‘And I expect it was intended that the plankton would have been added to other foods rather than eaten on its own.’