Aquaculture is the obvious way of offsetting the falling supply of fish in the sea. If we can’t rely on the ocean, it stands to reason we should expand fish-farming to make up the difference. A report last year from the World Resources Institute said we need to double farm fish production by 2050 if we’re to cope with the needs of a rising global population.
The problem is most fish farming isn’t sustainable. It’s done largely in developing countries with lax controls and produces lots of pollution from fertilizers and antibiotics. And, importantly, it’s inefficient. Farmers mostly grow big fish, like tuna or cod, that feed on smaller fish. They end up using more calories in feed than they harvest at the end, and often upset natural ecosystems to do it.
And that’s not all. Beau Perry would add another complaint about farming: that it’s not a viable alternative for coastal communities. Start-up costs for the average industrial farm can be as much as $5 million over the first five years, he says, which is a princely sum for many places. Plus, permitting is notoriously difficult, at least in the United States.
“There are only a few species you could conceive of growing at backyard scale in communities,” says the entrepreneur. “You are going to have trouble competing with extractive and industrial fisheries, because you need to bring in feed and fingerlings [baby fish] and those organisms are as sensitive as anything in aquaculture.”
Perry is investing in an alternative form of aquaculture: seaweed. First, there’s a growing demand for the stuff, both in restaurants and for fertilizer. Two, it’s something that can be grown economically at smaller scale, making it suitable for fishing communities. Lastly, it’s exceptionally environmentally friendly: growing seaweed requires almost no inputs, apart from seed and sunlight.
Perry came to seaweed after seeing a friend fail with a conventional fish farm during the recession, and struggling to build a sustainable shrimp farm of his own. He was growing seaweed and algae as an alternative to fish-food, but came to the conclusion he was in the wrong business.
“I realized that Americans are starting to eat seaweed in huge quantities and that I was selling the wrong thing. I had the right product. I just wasn’t marketing it on its own,” he says.
The last estimate from the Food and Agriculture Organization put the global market value of seaweed at $5 billion, with 99% of that coming from Japan and South Korea. Perry sees an opportunity to bring production closer to the U.S. market, importing from his base in La Paz, on the northwest Mexican coast.
Perry is planning a community-based model that supplies equipment and training to villages in return for an agreement to buy back the seaweed at harvest. The equipment includes long-lines threaded with seed and that sit in the open water. Olazul, a San Francisco nonprofit, is helping Perry reach out to fishers as part of a pilot.
If successful, Perry hopes to start importing significant quantities of high-grade seaweed to the U.S., while helping to wean communities off fishing that’s harming the long-term viability of the ocean. “I think an exciting thing would be for the conservation community to finance this in exchange for a commitment to fisheries reform,” he says.
Another good thing about seaweed is that it has many uses (unlike fish, which is basically good just for eating). You can also turn it into fertilizer, or fish food, and if you don’t harvest it, it cleans the water around it. Certain types are excellent for trapping nitrogen or heavy metals, both of which can later be extracted. (Of course, you wouldn’t plant seaweed meant for human consumption in polluted waters).
Perry says: “Seaweed has this increasing set of applications that will probably make it more economically resilient, so as community enterprise, it contributes to greater economic certainty and stability.”