The dark squares that make up the checkerboard pattern are fields of seaweed. Along the south coast of South Korea, seaweed is often grown on ropes.
Seaweed Farms in South Korea: The dark squares that make up the checkerboard pattern are fields of seaweed. Along the south coast of South Korea, seaweed is often grown on ropes. © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Global Insights | Perspectives

How Restorative Aquaculture Helps Nature and Communities Thrive

Global Lead, Aquaculture, The Nature Conservancy
Robert Jones Global Lead, Aquaculture

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Key Takeaways

  • Ocean restoration can be costly, but it's essential for the future of life on Earth.
  • New research shows that shellfish and seaweed farms can deliver restorative benefits for ocean health, while supporting economic development and food production in coastal communities worldwide—if the right practices are deployed in the right places.
  • As a complement to traditional public efforts, the development of the commercial shellfish and seaweed aquaculture sectors could present market-driven opportunities for restoring coastal ecosystems.

The ocean is often called the last frontier of scientific exploration, but here’s one thing we already know: it is in a dire state, and the future of life on Earth depends on how quickly we chart a new course. That means restoring and protecting marine ecosystems, and identifying more sustainable ways to tap into the ocean’s resources to feed a growing global population. 

For some, it may be come as a surprise that aquaculture—an industry that has been historically associated with localized environmental impacts—could have hidden potential to meet those needs. New research shows that shellfish and seaweed farms can actually deliver restorative benefits for ocean health, as well as supporting economic development and food production in coastal communities worldwide—if the right practices are deployed in the right places.

Close-up shot of many baby oysters on an unseen surface
Baby oysters Oceania—where these bivalves are destined—shows exceptional potential for shellfish-based restorative aquaculture. © Dr. Paul Hamer

A Global Opportunity

A new analysis published in PLOS ONE—a collaboration by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Adelaide and The Nature Conservancy (TNC)—identifies the top global regions where shellfish and seaweed aquaculture stand to produce positive outcomes for both nature and people.

This latest analysis builds on earlier studies from TNC that identified ecosystem benefits provided by aquaculture, including reducing nutrient pollution and providing habitat for fish stocks, and synthesized the current body of scientific knowledge of the ecological benefits of shellfish and seaweed farming in particular. 

Our results show that restorative aquaculture is a truly global opportunity. Many coastal communities across the world can benefit from at least one of the two types of restorative aquaculture, which we define as the cultivation of seaweed or shellfish, that generate positive ecological and social impact. However, our study shows that certain regions demonstrate exceptional potential for strong outcomes.

Why is this so important? This information can help governments, international development organizations and investors as they prioritize policy initiatives, spending and business planning for optimal economic and environmental returns on investment. The involvement of each of these stakeholders will be critical to deploying restorative aquaculture at scale—meaning more food and more jobs with less environmental impact.

Restorative aquaculture has the potential to go a step beyond impact reduction and actually improve marine environments.

The Future of Food

Aquaculture is not only the fastest-growing form of food production—it’s also one of the most environmentally efficient ways of producing animal protein. This is especially true for bivalves and seaweed, which are near-zero input forms of farming, requiring almost no feed, freshwater or land and minimal greenhouse gases to produce. What’s more, these farms have the potential to go a step beyond impact reduction and actually improve water quality, remove excess nutrients from their immediate environments, and provide habitat to create a healthier ecosystem for marine life. 

In this way, if carefully designed, shellfish and seaweed farms could be part of an effective strategy to help accelerate coastal restoration alongside traditional efforts to rebuild of oyster and rocky reefs. And where public and philanthropic funds to support traditional coastal ecosystem restoration efforts are limited—particularly within low or lower-middle income nations—development of commercial shellfish and seaweed aquaculture sectors could present a cost-effective, market-driven opportunity to help restore coastal ecosystems.

Two sets of hands sorting golden seaweed over a semi-transparent net
SORTING SEAWEED IN BELIZE This farm, part of the TNC-sponsored Placencia Fishermen Cooperative, cultivates seaweed for food, skin treatments and cosmetics. © Randy Olson

According to our study, the highest opportunity regions for shellfish cultivation centers on Oceania, North America and portions of Asia, while the highest for seaweed centers on Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. But currently, few of the key regions are operating at their full potential—some have few aquaculture operations, and others have yet to implement sustainable ones at scale.

Situated north of continental Europe, the North Sea was consistently identified as the highest opportunity marine ecoregion for restorative shellfish and seaweed aquaculture development. Increasing the capacity of commercial seaweed and shellfish farming can help boost the ecological health of the region’s coastal waters, which suffer from significant nutrient pollution and the wide-scale loss of shellfish reefs and fish stocks. 

Some identified high-opportunity regions, such as the East China Sea, already have robust shellfish and seaweed aquaculture industries. In these cases, our analysis suggests a proper assessment of the practices in use, in order to make modifications as necessary to improve ecological benefits of these farms.

More Potential on the Horizon

Many of the benefits of restorative aquaculture are clear, but the answers to some questions remain under the surface. For this reason, TNC continues to work with farmers and university partners to explore the ecological role of shellfish farming in the United States and the co-culture of mussels and seaweed in New Zealand. Through this work, we intend to quantify the benefits of providing nursery habitat for fish through shellfish aquaculture and the potential climate and production benefits of seaweed aquaculture—areas we have identified as some of the least understood ecosystem services shellfish and seaweed can offer. 

Elsewhere in the Americas, seaweed aquaculture may promise similar ecosystem support where declining fish stocks have become an increasing concern. While Belizean fishers initially sought to supplement their catch with the new product, the farms have attracted a diversity of marine life, including commercially important species like the overfished spiny lobster. Through ecological monitoring, TNC research will help determine the best conditions and growing methods for restorative seaweed farms. 

Here’s another thing we know about the ocean: as the aquaculture industry continues to grow, so does its influence on marine environments and economic development in coastal zones—for good or for ill. When we grow the right species, in the right places, using the proper farming methods, the future of farming can not only provide food for a growing population, but ensure the health of the waters on which we rely. 

 

Originally posted on Ethical Corporation
October 10, 2019
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Resources

  • Global map with coastal areas highlighted.

    Global Restorative Aquaculture: Spatial Analysis

    Explore an interactive map of the 'Restorative Aquaculture Opportunity Index' scores specific to the 'shellfish aquaculture' scenario. See the Map

Global Lead, Aquaculture, The Nature Conservancy

Robert Jones is Global Lead, Aquaculture for The Nature Conservancy.

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