by Brendan Smith
For decades environmentalists have fought to save our oceans from the perils of overfishing, climate change, and pollution.
All noble efforts - but what if
environmentalists have it backwards? What if the question is not how
to save the oceans, but how the oceans can save us?
Governed by an ethic of sustainability,
they are re-imagining our oceans with the hope of saving us from the
grip of the ever-escalating climate, energy, and food crises.
For thousands of years cultures as
diverse as the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Aztecs, and Chinese have
farmed finfish, shellfish, and aquatic plants. Atlantic salmon have
been farmed in Scotland since the early 1600s; seaweed was a staple
food for American settlers.
According to a recent New York Times editorial, aquaculture,
Unsurprisingly, once information got out
among the general public, "aquaculture" quickly became a dirty word.
Industry responded with a
strategy of mislabeling seafood and upping
their marketing budgets, rather than investing in more sustainable
and environmentally benign farming techniques.
Rather than relying on mono-aquaculture
operations, these new ocean farms are pioneering multi-tropic and
sea-vegetable aquaculture, whereby ocean farmers grow abundant,
high-quality seafood while improving, rather than damaging, the
Farmers in Long Island Sound are
exploring diversifying small-scale organic shellfish farms with
various species of seaweed to filter out the pollutants, mitigate
oxygen depletion, and develop a sustainable source for fertilizer
and fish meal. In southern Spain
Veta La Palma designed its farm to
restore wetlands, and in the process created the largest bird
sanctuary in Spain, with over 220 species of birds.
Professor Ronald Osinga at Wageningen University
in the Netherlands
has calculated that a global network of
"sea-vegetable" farms totaling 180,000 square kilometers - roughly
the size of Washington state - could provide enough protein for the
entire world population.
But here is the real kicker:
Ramping up food production without increasing greenhouse gas emissions is vital if we are to survive the coming decades.
But land-based food production is
entering an era of crisis.
The U.N. estimates that global grain
production will plummet by 63 million metric tons this year alone
mainly because of weather-related calamities like the Russian heat
wave and the floods in Pakistan.
Warriors - Seaweed and Shellfish
The Philippines, China, and other Asian
countries, which have long farmed seaweed as a staple food source,
now view seaweed farms as an essential ingredient for reducing their
Like carbon, nitrogen is an essential
part of life - plants, animals, and bacteria all need it to survive
- but too much has a devastating effect on our land and ocean
That's the same amount of emissions that are generated by 88 million passenger cars each year. Much of this nitrogen from fertilizers ends up in our oceans, where nitrogen is now 50 percent above normal levels.
According to the journal Science, excess nitrogen,
Oysters to the rescue
One oyster filters 30-50 gallons of water a day - and in the process filters nitrogen out of the water column.
Recent work done by Roger Newell of the University of
shows that a healthy oyster habitat can reduce total added
nitrogen by up to 20 percent. A three-acre oyster farm filters out
the equivalent nitrogen load produced by
35 coastal inhabitants.
Architect Kate Orff from the design firm SCAPE is developing urban aquaculture parks that use floating rafts and suspended shellfish long-lines to build more urban green space while improving the environment. She envisions the new urban ocean farmer as part shell fisherman tending to oysters reefs, and part landscaper, tending the above-surface floating parks.
There is an array of projects sprouting up that use a mix of seaweed and shellfish to clean up polluted urban waterways and help communities prepare for the effect of climate change.
spearheaded by Dr.
Charles Yarish of the University of Connecticut, is growing kelp
and shellfish on floating lines in New York's Bronx River to filter
nitrogen, mercury, and other pollutants out of the city's toxic
waterways, with the goal of making them healthier, more productive,
and more economically viable.
With new oyster operations sprouting up
all around the country, rewarding "green fishermen" for the positive
effect their farms have on the environment could be a model for how
to stimulate job growth while saving the planet.
A report commissioned by the European Union found biofuels from soy beans can create up to four times more climate-warming emissions than equivalent fossil fuels.
Biofuels have also forced global food prices up by 75 percent - far more than previously estimated - according to a confidential World Bank study.
a recent report from the
International Food Policy and Research Institute, warned that U.S.
government support for corn ethanol was a major factor behind this
year's food price spikes.
About 50 percent of seaweed's weight is
oil, which can be used to make biodiesel for cars, trucks, and
airplanes. Scientists at the University of Indiana recently figured
out how to turn seaweed into biodiesel four times faster than other
researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology
have discovered a way to use alginate extracted from kelp to ramp up
the storage power of lithium-ion batteries by a factor of ten.
According to Alan Shaffer, the Pentagon's principal deputy director of defense research and engineering:
The DOE estimates that seaweed biofuel can yield up to 30 times more energy per acre than land crops such as soybean.
According to Biofuels Digest,
The world's energy needs could be met by setting aside three percent of the world's oceans for seaweed farming.
In his best-selling book
Making Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben breaks
the news that climate change is no longer a future threat - it is
here and now and we had better get our affairs in order.
According to the International Program on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) - a consortium of 27 of the top ocean experts in the world - the effects of climate change, ocean acidification, and oxygen depletion have already triggered a,
Simultaneously, greenhouse gas emissions
breaking records, exceeding even the worst-case scenario
envisioned by scientists four years ago.
But in the face of the escalating
climate crisis, we have little choice but to explore new ways of
sustaining humanity while protecting the planet.
This means dedicating portions of ocean to farming - while reserving large swaths for marine conservation parks. And rather than building sprawling ocean factories, we need create decentralized networks of small-scale food and energy farms growing food, generating power, and creating jobs for local communities.
While no panacea, ocean farming - carefully conceived -
could be a vital part of reversing course and building a greener