Farming fish: Aquaculture could be the oceans’ saving grace

At the onset of the Arab Spring in the summer of 2010, countries throughout the Middle East were forced to imagine new work opportunities as the region navigated rising unemployment rates. For Oman, a historic seafaring nation with high seafood consumption, one proposed answer to the job crisis was aquaculture. 

Aquaculture is “the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of marine plants and animals.” which can be facilitated in bodies of water and in large tanks on land. However, the intent behind aquaculture isn’t merely to create mass networks of fish-farms. Rather, the idea is to build sustainable, individualized farms that cultivate specific species complementary to their environments. With 90% of the world’s large fish stocks being threatened by overfishing, this developing field is becoming increasingly relevant. 

Aquaculture is in its infancy in Oman; the country has pursued projects in earnest while acknowledging aquaculture as a crucial "key pillar” to diversify its economy. However, resource allocation and policy work remain. Still, many remain eager to see how it could evolve. Rumaitha Al Busaidi is an Omani marine scientist who has supervised a number of successful aquaculture projects in the country. According to her, aquaculture has the potential to serve dual purposes both economically and environmentally, helping the country to slowly diversify its economy away from oil and gas. 

Following a devastating cyclone in 2007, many traditional farms began hemorrhaging profits as their groundwater inputs had become salinated. Al Busaidi believes that building sustainable fisheries at these sites can help farmers and oceans recover from the major hit. Tilapia fish do not occur naturally in Oman, but aquaculture has helped farmers to explore a new source of revenue.

“How do you utilize a source now that's no longer viable 100% for full-scale agriculture and use it to kind of close the loop and use it for another resource? That's when fish [farming] came about,” says Al Busaidi.

Oman is merely a case study of the potential of aquaculture, as it is gradually becoming a dynamic industry across the globe. 35 countries produced more farmed than wild-caught fish in 2014, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The U.S. aquaculture industry produced 626 million pounds of seafood in 2017, according to Paul Hawken’s Drawdown

While the solution can clearly create food, the potential to scale back the effects of climate change is especially fascinating. Seaweed, for example, has been hailed as an unexpected source of biofuel. The marine plant gets the bulk of its weight from oil that can be converted into biofuel for cars, trucks, and even airplanes. The world’s energy needs could be met if 3% of the world’s oceans were set aside for seaweed farming, according to Drawdown

One of the most notable things about aquaculture is that it has split off into a number of promising sub-technologies. “Oyster-tecture,” for example, is an emerging field within aquaculture that focuses on “artificial oyster reefs and floating gardens to help protect coastal communities from future hurricanes sea-level rise and storm surges,” according to Drawdown.

Meanwhile, oysters are also able to absorb large amounts of carbon and, more importantly, filter out nitrogen. Maryland state is dedicated to the restoration of oyster reefs on its Eastern Shore while oyster farming. Each year, its Harris Creek reefs are estimated to remove an amount of nitrogen equivalent to 20,000 bags of fertilizer—a service valued at more than $1.7 million, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Alas, aquaculture isn’t exactly a climate plan buzzword. Much of the text of the Green New Deal and the Biden Plan for Climate Change and Environmental Justice centers on land-based approaches. In Oman at least, aquaculture farms are nowhere near becoming the norm. 98% of fishing fleets in the country are traditional fisheries run by local fishermen, according to Al Busaidi. However, she maintains that the promise of a highly-developed aquaculture industry shouldn’t be ignored, especially when it comes to engaging young people in the conversation. 

“It’s a profession that a lot of young people are moving away from because it's not cool anymore to be a fisherman,” says Al Busaidi. “Much of the work is around determining how we make aquaculture cool again. How do we make fisheries cool?” 

Cool-factor or not, aquaculture could be the oceans’ saving grace. Environmentalists have asked how to save the oceans from overfishing, pollution, and the increasingly visible effects of climate change. However, maybe that inquiry should be turned on its head. Maybe seas and oceans can be developed to be self-sufficient, and ultimately capable of protecting the planet. 

The field requires quite a bit of bolstering, but in the interim, countries can explore dedicating resources toward specialized aquaculture farms, while distancing themselves from the fishing practices that have resulted in today’s environmental dilemmas. The rise of aquaculture is a testament to the fact that when it comes to new technologies and community-oriented sustainability solutions, discovery is nonstop.

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