It is estimated that by the year 2050, the human population on earth will grow from seven billion to between 9 and 10 billion people. Many scientists agree that the current land-based system of food production, which includes agriculture and meat, is not capable of meeting our future needs. Turning to the oceans could be one solution. After all, they occupy some 70% of the earth’s surface.
The problem is that the oceans are being rapidly depleted of fish. Scientists say we reached “peak fish” some 30 years ago, meaning that we are no longer able to extract more every year from the ocean without the risk of a collapse of the global fisheries. The answer, they say, is farming. Not farming the land, but farming the ocean.
Some countries have been practicing aquaculture for a long time. In fact, recently aquaculture surpassed wild fishing as the primary source of protein from the ocean. The world’s largest producer of farmed fish is China, followed by other southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand.
The US, meanwhile, has a very small aquaculture industry, mostly mom and pop operations that grow oysters, mussels and clams in the ocean and freshwater farms, growing relatively low-value species like catfish and carp.
But that could be about to change, as you can see in the video above.
Off the shore of Southern California, an entrepreneur named Phil Cruver has built the first aquaculture facility in US federal waters. Called Catalina Sea Ranch, it could be a big deal. All the other US-based producers are located in estuaries or in state waters, mostly near shore, where the potential environmental impacts are felt closer to home. Phil’s farm is about seven miles off the coast of Huntington Beach. He has staked out 100 acres to grow thousands of pounds of mussels, which cling to long loops of rope about 30 feet beneath the surface.
The US government has been reluctant to permit aquaculture in federal waters for a host of complicated reasons, mostly related to the low cost of foreign seafood and the overlapping regulatory jurisdictions to oversee the growing industry.
Aquaculture remains burdened by a bad reputation for causing pollution, disease and a host of other negative environmental impacts. These problems remain in some areas, but experts say that the industry has significantly cleaned up its act over the last decade.
On Phil’s side is the fact that mussels are probably the most environmentally responsible creature to farm in the ocean. To farm finfish like salmon, you need to feed them, and mostly that has meant catching fish further down the food chain, grinding them up in a process called rendering, and then scattering the feed over vast enclosures. But mussels don’t need feeding. They naturally filter their food from the water.
“Mussels are an excellent thing to farm for the same reason that other animals aren’t,” says Ryan Bigelow, Senior Program Manager at Seafood Watch, a Monterey Bay Aquarium program that promotes sustainable seafood. “They love to be crammed into tight spaces. They don’t need many antibiotics. They don’t have to provide food. And in many cases they can clean the water where they’re farmed,”
Right now, Phil’s mussel farm is in its early stages. Over the coming years he hopes to expand its size and also to move into other species like scallops, oysters and seaweed. If he’s successful, it likely won’t be long before others join him, seeking to create protein, and riches, out of the ocean.
Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.
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