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Can Farming the Ocean Help Save the Planet?

By 3p Contributor

By Robert Jones

With the world population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, putting further strain on our rapidly depleting natural resources, few would dispute that we need new, innovative approaches to agriculture to feed the planet — especially if we’re to do so without causing further damage to the environment.

But while people argue over the best agricultural approaches — from organic production to hyper-local supply chains — rarely is aquaculture considered, even though it is one of the most effective ways to to produce food without causing environmental damage.

Aquaculture is agriculture in water; more technically, it’s the farming of fish, shellfish and seaweed. It’s also one of the most efficient ways of producing nutritious protein, and it can be practiced with minimal environmental impact when done responsibly. In fact, done properly, some types of aquaculture may contribute to restoring degraded coastal ecosystems — without sacrificing farmers’ profits.

The average American is probably more familiar with traditional agriculture than aquaculture. The United States is one of the top three global producers of chicken, beef and pork, but we are 15th in farmed seafood. The United States imports over 90 percent of the seafood it consumes, much of it from countries that don’t meet the same environmental standards. Despite having tremendous national technical, intellectual and resource capacity, the United States produces just $1.3 billion worth of farmed seafood — compared with more than $900 billion in traditional agriculture products.

This represents a lost opportunity for business and the environment. Aquaculture, particularly of shellfish and seaweed, is one area in which business and the environment are aligned. And creating more business opportunities for these types of aquaculture can actually benefit the environment. Farming these organisms takes “near zero input” — they require no land, freshwater, feed or fertilizers to produce. From an ecological standpoint, they just might be the closest thing to a “free lunch” that we can get.

But perhaps more interesting is the direct environmental benefits farmed shellfish and seaweed provide.

Shellfish and seaweed are nature’s purification systems. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, helping to improve clarity of the water in coastal bays. Seaweed and shellfish are both excellent at removing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous that pollute waterways and contribute to eutrophication in nearly 70 percent of U.S. marine waterways. The Nature Conservancy is working with the Chesapeake Bay Program to develop recommendations based on the best available science on how to account for reductions in nutrients loads provided by oysters.

Aquaculture gear can also provide habitat in the water for local fish and invertebrates, an important benefit due to lost habitat from development, fishing and other anthropogenic causes. With shellfish and seaweed populations at historically low levels — in the case of oysters, 85 percent lost globally — the ecological benefits these communities once gave us have been lost. Can we harness aquaculture to recover some of the benefits of these lost populations?

Of course, as with agriculture, there are good practices and bad practices within aquaculture. And one reason for slow growth in this sector of the United States is likely negative perceptions based on the impacts of the early days of shrimp and salmon farming in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, shrimp and salmon farms had hefty environmental impacts once, but the sector has learned from past mistakes and taken measures to significantly improve their performance. The current U.S. regulatory system includes a full suite of environmental safeguards and ways to ensure new projects are sited in ways that minimize habitat impacts on important organisms like eelgrass.

In fact, shellfish and seaweed farmers have become great advocates for clean waterways. They just don’t just want it; their business also depends on it. Without good water quality, animals can’t grow or harvests may be prohibited. By supporting the growth of shellfish and seaweed aquaculture, we can create a constituency for clean water that is in line with environmental objectives. In the 1960s and 1970s in Washington state, the shellfish industry pushed alongside environmental groups for improved water-quality management to keep their businesses thriving.

And while some might think that mollusk and seaweed sectors are trivial in the global aquaculture sector, this is untrue. Combined, they represent nearly 50 percent of the global aquaculture industry by weight today and are poised to grow well into the future.

This week, San Antonio, Texas, will host Aquaculture America: the largest aquaculture research and trade conference in North America, projected to draw over 2,000 aquaculture professionals from industry, research institutes and governmental sectors across the continent. A team of employees from the Nature Conservancy has assembled a day-long session to discuss with industry, research institutes, and other NGOs how we can grow the nation’s aquaculture industry to provide benefits to the environment while producing sustainable seafood and jobs in rural communities.

Coming out of the conference, we hope to have built consensus, crystalized relationships and identified new collaborative projects to move “restorative” aquaculture forward. But we will also need more support from government, investors, entrepreneurs, and most of all, coastal communities to advance aquaculture and bring these ideas to scale. All of these groups must work together to address the regulatory, technical and political barriers for aquaculture to live up to its potential.

It’s time to consider creating more opportunities for robust sustainable aquaculture industry here in the United States that will create rural jobs, provide healthy, local seafood and provide benefits to the environment.

Robert Jones is the Global Aquaculture Lead for The Nature Conservancy.

Image © Jason Houston for TNC

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