How Ocean Water Could Save Our Planet
Integrated seawater aquaculture is not new. University of Arizona researcher, Carl Hodges, has been working on seawater aquaculture for more than four decades. His vision is simple: integrated seawater aquaculture facilities in under-developed nations. He had a successful run at it in Eritrea, a small African nation.
His current farm resides in Sonora, Mexico. I had the benefit of visiting this farm a few summers back when my roommate and I were so intrigued by the idea that we had to go see it for ourselves. We also combined it as a camping trip on the sand dunes of Kino Bay that included night swimming and beer.
It works like this: take arid land 1km inland from the ocean and grow a crop that thrives off seawater (in this case, salicornia, a succulent that is not only edible but is used to make a high-grade bio fuel). But, have aquaculture farms like shrimp or tilapia, where their organic waste will fertilize the crops. In Sonora, the already-existing shrimp farm industry fertilizes the crops. If you got up in a helicopter you could actually see the mass of shrimp waste flow out into the bay. It’s gross. I’ve only seen aerial pictures and I was still grossed out. The salicornia crops actually became a clean-up method for the bay. With out the crops, water rich in organic matter displaces too much oxygen that ecosystems need to reproduce and survive. This was happening to specific salt marshes in Kino Bay and lots of inhabitants of that salt marsh died off. With seawater aquaculture, problem solved. It should be; I haven’t checked back in lately.
So, you have an abundant water source, the ocean, cultivating seafood and a crop. The crop can be used to feed people, animals or turned into a bio-fuel. It has a net carbon gain (which is also rewarded with a tax credit). It combats rising ocean levels. And the beachfront property is still available for commercial use. Good stuff.
What I liked the most about the visit was the passion instilled in the people I met involved in the project. Much of the management team was from Africa. They understood the environment, the ocean and farming. The land used to grow salicornia was ancient farmland where the water table was drained from decades of unsustainable farming and environmental change. I like the concept. I think it has promise.
What I didn’t like about the visit was the apparent frustration that the project was not more widely adopted or better funded. It seems like most technology focused environmental ventures gets held up by lots of red tape no matter what country you’re in. They proved the concept already. Full-scale implementation has not been achieved yet, and I think that is part of their frustration. I can empathize. It was also really hot out. I was sweating more than a 300-pound man locked in a sauna, wearing a Richard Simmons outfit, eating whole jalapeños while doing jumping jacks. Got that visual?
There is also the political instability factor of bringing this concept to under-developed areas. Economic developments in under-developed regions are conceptually win-win situations. Inexpensive labor to make the concept feasible and jobs that compliment the region (provided the business model does compliment the region and labor is not being taking advantage of. Common problems). However, the 800-lb gorilla (or 300lb sauna man) in the room is, and will always be political instability. This scares away many investors. Mr. Hodge had this problem when Eritrea declared war against Ethiopia in 1998 and his operation got shut down.
Let’s wrap this up. 97% of our water on this planet is saltwater. We could double our population tomorrow, invite some neighbors, and this planet probably still wouldn't even come close to using "too much" water within centuries. In fact, Mr. Hodge argues that we need to use this water to combat raising sea levels to preserve our land mass. It’s impossible to predict all the complex issues that derive from such experimentation. If this were implemented on a large scale, what would all the externalities (negative or positive) to the environment and the ocean be? Is it even safe to invest in large-scale implementation when we know the ocean’s acidity levels are rising to noticeably un-natural levels? Regardless, this is an extremely interesting business model and deserves a fair shot.