🐟 Fishing series: How to better farm the ocean? A look at “restorative ocean farming”

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“Havfarm”, a giant mobile Norwegian ocean farm
China delivering a giant ocean fish farm to Norway

Wild fires, droughts, hurricanes, sterile soil… our contemporary land-farming system seem to be increasingly pushed out to the sea 🌊. It is quite clear, however, that the capture of wild fish does not and will not be able handle the increasing demand for sea foods. It appears that we will soon be forced to farm the ocean.

If we can today find fish farms[1] along our coasts and or out on the open sea, a large percentage of these has, in reality, a real detrimental impact on the environment. Indeed, these structures produce gigantic amounts of waste which covers the sea bed and pollutes its surroundings, potentially spreading diseases to wild species. Worst still, since the antibiotics poured into the water to help fight diseases among fish populations aren’t fully absorbed, they often get leaked back into the water and carried away by streams. Let's not forget that the questionnable durability of the material used in building the cages can also break and lead farmed fish to escape by the thousands, later competing for ressources with wild species.

So how to better farm the ocean? Ocean farming indeed seems to only encompass the production of “fish-meat” —an industry seemingly following the same standards as of livestock farming. Could we not, instead, farm the ocean with a resilient state of mind? Couldn’t these farms help restore the health of the ocean?

The case of “restorative ocean farming”

A farmer checking the quality of his seaweed

Having an ocean farm is like being an arugula farmer” Bren Smith, 2020.[2]

According to Bren Smith, strong figure of regenerative ocean farming and founder of non-profit association “Greenwave”, Bren believes that farming the ocean in a resilient way could help mitigate the effects climate change and help save our oceans. For him, the perception of what the ocean is is changing. “The ocean is not seen only as a victim anymore but as a main actor in the solving of the climate crisis. The temperature of the ocean might be going higher, the ocean also helps to trap more than 35% of human-made emissions and help prevent 90% of the excess heat created by it to spread into our atmosphere. But this has an impact on ocean acidification, which makes it harder for shellfish and coral to grow their shells and skeletons. That is why we need to help restore the health of the ocean, and restorative farming can do that.

So what is a restorative ocean farm?

A restorative farming system

“Restorative ocean farms“ are designed around 2 types of seafoods:

  • 🐚  Mollusks (shellfish)
  • 🌾  Seaweeds.

This model requires very low capital costs and minimal skill requirements as it based on underwater “scaffoldings of rope” attached to floating buoys. Cheap to build (between 20 and 50 thousand dollars including the purchase of a boat and a lease (from 25 to 50$ an acre per year)) requiring very little equipment, a restorative farm can be put together in two days. This implies that a farm can be built sporadicly for one single season, or kept active all year round —an argument which seems to seduce a large crowd of hesitant young farmers. According to Bren Smith, the “{…} fast replication of the restorative farming model might be a key ingredient to move at the speed of the climate crisis.[3]

But ocean farming implies to take the question of the “design” in consideration. “Let’s remember that we are not gardeners, but farmers. So we need strong, fast growing crops which can yield multiple times a year, as well as resistant architectures which can resist the passing of hurricanes and tornados” underlines Bren. From an architectural perspective, the model of restorative fish farms is said to be able to endure much more stress than its industrial counterpart as it is based on mobile material (buoys and rope) which, are ultimately more resilient and long lasting than steel or plastic nets.

What can a restorative farm grow?

A bud of kelp ready to be submerged and left to grow
Nets of scallops

Under the water, the soil is being turned over a thousand times a day”. This quote entails that ocean farming cannot count on a regular nutrient flow and therefore calls on the growing of robust, resilient crops, the least dependent of farmers as possible. According to a large percentage of farmers, seaweeds 🌾 such as “Kelp” seem to be the ultimate crop to grow in wild marine environments.
Indeed, this weed can just as well grow in warm waters (such as the coast of San Diego, close to Mexico) or cold ones (such as in the North Sea or the coast of Alaska). Kelp is said also to be an incredible solution to soak up nutrients and bring them back into the soil. Many nutrients that land-based farming needs to grow crops with (the phosphorus, the nitrogen, the carbon, etc…) ultimately ends up in the ocean as it leaches out of the soil and ends up in the water. The farming of “Kelp” or other seaweeds can help create a nutrient loop, from land to ocean: a regenerative agriculture.

Other than sucking up nutrients, seaweed can actually absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2). Ocean acidification being caused by excess carbon dioxide in the air, cultivating fireproof forests of underwater seaweeds able to absorb CO2, seem to be a quite welcome to counteract deforestation 🌳 and wild fires 🔥.

While a part of the food industry believes that seaweed will not become “a food of the future” nor a feed for crops and livestock as it could impact the taste of these products, seaweed production however seems on the right track to become a major player in the food packaging industry[4]: a cheap and reliable base material for biodegradable paper and cardboard.
But how to farm food for human consumption? What the growing of seaweeds also allows is to provide healthy habitats for other species to thrive in. This is where shellfish 🐚 comes into play. Requiring zero input such as fertilizer, fresh water or feed, shellfish can simply grow and filter the water which will later help the seaweed grow.

Ocean farming is an affordable industry because we don’t need to fight gravity” says Bren Smith. Indeed, by implanting a few buds of seaweed and a few Mollusks on a network of ropes, both organism will grow organically, from the top down, benefiting from each other’s qualities and offering nutrient rich products for both human consumption and non-food usage.

The social benefits of the practice

Ocean farming being a developing model, the rules and the culture of the industry are not yet written. Compared to conventional Capture fishery in the West, predominantly dominated by white middle class men, fish farming seems to be pursued by a majority of women. If the reasons for such an interest are difficult to encompass, it seems that the industry may appear as an opportunity for women to build an industry on their own terms, rather than scraping for equity in an existing system.

Related images

Notes

  1. Fish farms, also know as “aquaculture” represents nearly 50% of the worldwide production of fish. Marine aquaculture (on water) represents 25% of the whole aquaculture industry.
  2. Yale sustainable food program’s podcast channel. “Bren Smith: Eat like a fish?” January 2020
  3. National Geographic article on “Seaweed forests”
  4. Unilever launches seaweed-based packaging