Can Ocean Farming Help Feed the Earth’s Booming Population?

Photo by yeowatzup, Wikimedia Commons

PART 1: Aquaculture in California, So Far

By Christian Paullin, Environmental Journalist

By 2050, our planet will be home to approximately 9.9 billion people, a more than 25% increase since 2020,according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The current global levels of food production are not nearly enough to support these additional two billion people. To support this expected progeny in a healthy environment, we must produce more food  without increasing land use or greenhouse gas (GHG) production.

California is at the forefront of this potential global food crisis as we produce 13% of our country’s crops and livestock and export billions of dollars of agriculture. In addition, we are located on the Pacific Ocean, which holds precious resources of shellfish, fish, and seaweed. As land availability reduces year in and year out, many scientists, farmers, and countries are turning to aquaculture as an alternative farming option.

California farm products for sale in Fresno, CA. (US Department of Agriculture)

Aquaculture, however, threatens ecosystems in several ways: destruction of habitat, introduction of foreign species, pollution, increased levels of animal waste, diseases passed to local fish populations, blockage of migration patterns, over-utilization of resources among many others. But if done correctly, aquaculture can be one of many avenues our society pursues in light of rising food demand.

The Sierra Club’s  Sustainable Marine Fisheries Policy doesn’t address aquaculture specifically, many of the principles apply. To briefly summarize, the Sierra Club encourages marine fisheries to be ecosystem-focused rather focused on single species. How will the farm affect the existing environment in all facets: local marine species, salinity, temperature, food sources, and even sunlight penetration? How will a fish from the Atlantic affect the ecosystem if it were to escape and breed in the Pacific? There are a lot of unknowns; proper research and analysis needs to be completed before any farm is opened.

Californians employed aquaculture as far back as 1850 when San Francisco residents started growing various breeds of oysters from all over the west coast in the San Francisco Bay. Though bay aquaculture and inland aquaculture are plentiful in California, almost all open-ocean aquaculture is restricted in California, including the hazardous system of farming fish in net pens or cages in the open ocean, for good reason. Net pen aquaculture involves anchoring huge nets or cages in the open-ocean. This can lead to: introduction of escaped fish into local population, pollution from waste of fish/antibiotics/chemicals, spread of disease from farmed to local populations, among other harmful factors.

However, some open-ocean farming can be done sustainably, specifically offshore farming of local shellfish and nutrient-rich local seaweed. Open ocean is vast: there are areas of low biological productivity and it’s a relatively untouched source of farmland to help feed our growing population.

Net Pens off the coast of Maine. (NOAA)

Mussels and seaweed can both provide benefits to local ecosystems such as reduced algal blooms, combat impacts of ocean acidification by removing GHG’s from the ocean and can provide habitat to some species of marine life.

Seaweed aquaculture off of South Korea. (NASA)

Open-ocean farming is already happening in California. Northern California has a few offshore seaweed farms. Santa Barbara Mariculture has farmed mussels in the open ocean for years after discovering wild mussels growing on oil rigs in the open ocean. And Ventura Shellfish Enterprise is a multi-party initiative working to receive a permit and lease for open-ocean shellfish farming. Unfortunately, Daybreak Seaweed, a woman-owned company based in Tomales Bay north of San Francisco, after an initial seaweed farming experiment, found California regulations too onerous. They are now partnering with seaweed and shellfish growers in Alaska.

Catalina Sea Ranch is the only operation located in the Los Angeles area. It was given permission to operate as a mussel farm but failed to comply with their permit obligations; did not perform inspections, ignored enforcement requests, and prematurely served product to consumers before being given the go ahead from the proper bodies. Ultimately their structure broke apart causing an accident fatal to a local recreational fisherman. Their failures have put a damper on this industry in Los Angeles, but it should not signal the end of offshore aquaculture in Los Angeles. With proper enforcement and rule-abiding operators, safe and sustainable offshore aquaculture still has a chance to thrive off our coasts.

So why aren’t there that many shellfish or seaweed farms off the coast of South Los Angeles or anywhere in Los Angeles for that matter? There are numerous reasons including some bureaucratic red tape, competitive pricing, difficulties of operating, a need for higher level of enforcement by governing heads, and others that will be touched on in the next issue of Foggy View.

Intertidal mussels growing in Bodega Bay, Calif. (NOAA)

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