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Science & Technology

Farming The Ocean For More Than Just Fish

Conservationists, researchers, and innovators weigh in on ocean health at a convention in La Jolla, Nov. 9, 2015.
Maya Trabulsi
Conservationists, researchers, and innovators weigh in on ocean health at a convention in La Jolla, Nov. 9, 2015.

Experts at La Jolla convention ask when sea vegetables will be a staple of aquaculture

La Jolla Convention Attendees Discuss Farming The Ocean For More Than Just Fish
At a convention in La Jolla ocean experts asked when sea vegetables will be a staple of aquaculture.

The ocean is a dichotomy. It ebbs with conservation crises, and yet it flows with the possible solutions. Cultivating those solutions was the goal of the “Oceans Big Think” convention held at the Seaside Forum in La Jolla last week.

Experts discuss the oceans' grand challenges at the "Oceans Big Think" convention in La Jolla, Nov. 9, 2015.
Maya Trabulsi
Experts discuss the oceans' grand challenges at the "Oceans Big Think" convention in La Jolla, Nov. 9, 2015.

The convention brought together conservation scientists, biologists and researchers, but also inventors, investors and international policy advisers. After forming groups, the participants rotate from table to table, discussing the “top 10” of the oceans’ grand challenges. Things like over-fishing, wildlife trafficking and making the most of the ocean as a source of food for humans.

By the year 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the planet’s population will exceed 9 billion people. With limited resources for sustainable sources of protein, some experts are looking to the seas for food. Land sources, like chicken and beef, may not be able to keep pace with the growing demand.

Colin McCormick, lead engineer with Conservation X Labs, said we are going to have to look to the seas to provide a lot of that protein, but it may not necessarily be only from fish.

He said farming sea vegetables, like kelp and seaweed, creates a more sustainable product, as well as a secondary market. Sea plants are seen as low-maintenance sources of food. They don’t require irrigation and they extract nutrients from the ocean itself.

McCormick admits this would involve a cultural challenge when it comes to a typical middle-class American family.

“Most American families aren’t going to want to eat seaweed, and wouldn’t know how to prepare it if they were handed a chunk of it,” he said. “So, we see a technology challenge there, but also market introduction and cultural challenge."

Dr. Alex Dehgan weighs in on the practice of aquaculture at a convention in La Jolla, Nov. 9, 2015.
Maya Trabulsi
Dr. Alex Dehgan weighs in on the practice of aquaculture at a convention in La Jolla, Nov. 9, 2015.

“One of the issues is how do you actually get those palates to accept new things, like seaweed,” said Alex Dehgan, conservation biologist and CEO of Conservation X Labs. “If we were able to do that we’d have an entirely new market.”

While American culinary preferences may not be quite ready to introduce sea vegetables to their diets, things might eventually be more to their favor.

“There’s a great example of people who have been able to grow kelp that tastes like bacon,” Dehgan said.

Dehgan adds that improving, and then expanding the practice of aquaculture to increase the potential market profit, creates opportunities for new business models.

“Why are we growing fish in the ocean, why not grow it in the middle of cities, and then use the waste products from the fish to help with agriculture, to actually generate energy? There’s a lot of ways that we can take these big grand challenges and turn them into big opportunities," Dehgan said.

Improving the practice of aquaculture could have a multi-pronged effect on the management of ocean resources, like over-fished wild populations. Valerie Craig is the Senior Director for Oceans at National Geographic Society. She said the results of overfishing could be seen at the grocery store.

“We saw orange roughy in the grocery store 10 to 15 years ago. You will not see it in the marketplace today. Because, it’s basically gone, we’ve over-fished it — a long-lived deep-water species. So, that’s an indication we clearly did something wrong,” Craig said.

Harnessing the nutritional power of the oceans through improved aquaculture may be the key to a sustainable future.