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Oceans and fisheries
News article26 March 2021Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

No quick fixes for quicksilver - but EU supports innovative solutions with MER-CLUB


When you think about marine pollution, probably you imagine floating debris such as plastic bottles, straws and bags, or discarded fishing nets trapping marine animals. Maybe you picture an oil spill. But would you think of mercury?

Yet pollution of marine waters by mercury is a critical problem worldwide, with major impacts not just on the environment, but also on human health. Decades of industrial activity, mining and fossil fuel combustion have led to large emissions of this heavy metal into the marine environment. Today’s surface marine waters contain three times as much mercury as they should.

And the pollution is there to last. Mercury, also known as quicksilver, persists in the environment – and in organisms living in or near that environment – for extensive periods of time. One of those organisms is, well, us. Humans. People eat fish and shellfish that have mercury in their tissues. Exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages. Even scarier: high levels of the heavy metal in the bloodstream of babies in the womb or young children may harm their nervous systems, and affect their ability to think and learn.

And there’s more bad news. Despite the drastic reduction of mercury emissions in recent years, concentrations in marine fish from different European seas remain the same. This level of persistence shows that avoiding new emissions is not sufficient: we also need to clean up and decontaminate the marine environment. Enter MER-CLUB.

MER-CLUB is an EU-funded project aiming to deliver a mercury clean-up system based on microbial bioremediation. If you wonder: it means they plan to use marine bacteria to get rid of the mercury.

Using recent advances in environmental genomics, cell sorting and mercury tracing, MER-CLUB will first identify the microorganisms that have the potential for mercury bioremediation. Then it will test their performance in a special clean-up system, based on immobilized bacteria able to operate in dredged marine sediments. That system will afterwards serve as a proof of concept for further development and, hopefully, commercial implementation.

MER-CLUB will carry out its actions in sediments from the Baltic, Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Already within the first five years, the consortium of six international research groups and one company is expected to lead to:

  • a patented system and a marketable product
  • redesign and optimization of the pilot plant to make it economically viable, and the industrial upscaling of the clean-up system
  • affordable technology for ex situ decontamination of marine sediments

In the long-term, MER-CLUB hopes to develop a full-fledged, eco-friendly in situ bioremediation procedure. This would avoid the large costs involved in dredging the sediments and allowing the ecological restoration of large locations for human activities.

As we are almost going live with the much-anticipated new EU approach to a sustainable blue economy, MER-CLUB is a prime example of how the blue economy can provide innovative solutions and help the EU reach its Green Deal objectives, including biodiversity restoration and zero pollution.

Did you like this story?

Then also check out the March edition of Euronews Ocean episode on health

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Publication date
26 March 2021
Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries