Can Ocean Farming Help Feed the Earth’s Booming Population? Pt. 2

Shellfish in the L.A. Harbor. Judy Herman

The Future of Ocean Farming in Southern California

By Christian Paullin, Environmental Reporter

How do you sustainably feed the 9.9 billion people that will be alive by 2050? Aquaculture is one answer. Shellfish and seaweed can be farmed sustainably, even adding numerous benefits like preventing toxic “red tides” and providing more oxygen to both our oceans and our air. 

So why is there only one seaweed farm of the coast of Los Angeles (which has not started its operations) and no shellfish farms? To answer this, we must understand the difficulty in starting a local ocean farm in California. Read on to find how we can support local farms that might someday soon pave the way for the future. 

Open-ocean shellfish and seaweed farming can potentially thrive off our coasts in a way that is minimally invasive. Shellfish and seaweed both eat nitrogen and phosphorus: a source of food for phytoplankton that cause toxic algal blooms. These “red tides” make the ocean anoxic and ultimately, kill off large amounts of sea life. Seaweed goes further— introducing oxygen to both the ocean and our atmosphere. Seaweed has a staggering number of uses, is full of vital nutrients, and it grows unabated. So why is there only one seaweed farm off the coast of Los Angeles (which has not started its operations) and no shellfish farms?

To farm oceans in California, one must lease a section of ocean from the state. These leases have been difficult to come by in recent years as the state has not issued a new lease in nearly 30 years.  To add to this,  in order to operate with the proper permitting, one must go through a high level of bureaucracy; first the Department of Fish and Game, then a long list of state agencies: the Coastal Commission, Department of Public Health, Regional Water Quality Control Board, US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Coast Guard.

Expensive lawyers and consultants are almost always required to help each firm gain these licenses. Ultimately this is difficult for small, entrepreneurial farmers and it is more likely a large established farm will have the resources to gain these permits and leases.

Another hurdle in our area is strong competition from foreign imports. Bernard Friedman, owner, operator, and sole employee of Santa Barbara Mariculture, one of the few successfully operated open-ocean aquaculture businesses in California, highlighted the difficulties of competing with foreign-subsidized imported seafood. Our local farmers have to jump through bureaucratic hoops, have high levels of initial start-up costs, and then can only sell their product with a small profit margin as foreign-imported competition drives the price down.

For this industry to thrive, there needs to be a shift in how the leases and permitting are currently managed. There needs to be a less complex way to receive permitting and ocean leases while still maintaining the health of our ecosystems.

Something also needs to be done to help local aquaculture operators compete with foreign imports. Subsidies for local goods are not the option as they may encourage farmers to farm unsustainably. Then what else can be done? Potentially a tariff on foreign imports as a way to move buyers towards locally sourced seafood can help increase margins for local farmers, thus incentivizing more local farms opening up. A solution is hard to come by as impacts of open ocean farms aren’t fully understood; nevertheless, the current system is not economically sustainable for our local farmers.  It is vital that we  create a system that is both economically viable for farmers without impacting our local ecosystem.

One potential solution to competition is for businesses and restaurants selling seafood to shift their focus on purchasing it direct from the source. Local docks and harbors across southern California (San Diego, Newport Beach, San Pedro, Ventura, and Santa Barbara) are a great source of local product that businesses and individuals alike can turn too instead of imported product. Many businesses such as Santa Monica Seafood and Get Hooked Seafood in Los Angeles act as middlemen between local fishermen and businesses.  There is an opportunity for more entrepreneurial individuals to provide an avenue of contact between our local fishermen and the public.

There is a lot of potential for offshore aquaculture of shellfish and seaweed. It can help our local ecosystem and economies alike.  However, in order for this industry to thrive sustainably, there needs to be a change not only in how the government manages it, but also in how businesses and individuals purchase seafood. By being more conscious and willing to spend a few extra dollars on local seafood, we can help create a healthy economic and natural environment for shellfish and seaweed open ocean aquaculture.

Santa Barbara Mariculture information can be found here Permiting and Leasing 

%d bloggers like this: