Humans have caused irreversible changes to the biosphere, which is why we talk of the Anthropocene – a geological epoch marked by mankind. With extreme weather events, record heat, glaciers melting and sea levels rising, there’s no denying that climate change is here. Water sets the stage for life on Earth and our relationship with water will dictate our future. With rising CO2 levels our waters are turning sour.
One hundred years of human waste, warming waters, invasive species and overfishing have damaged Long Island’s coastal ecosystem and as a result the once thriving shellfishing culture has suffered tremendously. Human behavior (inefficient sewage treatment, stormwater runoff and excess fertilizers) sheds excess nitrogen and phosphorus into the bay, encouraging the growth of harmful algae blooms (HABs) that suffocate underwater greenery and marine organisms, making it impossible for aquatic life to breathe. These “dead zones” are threatening what used to be a vibrant waterfront.
How to accommodate millions of humans, while still maintaining a thriving coastal community? Regenerative seaweed and seashell farming wake up the ocean optimist in me. We can turn to aquatic life (oysters, clams and kelp) to help us with bio-extraction, as long as we help them. Long Island has a long history of supporting oyster aquaculture that has the well-known benefit of cleaning our waters as shellfish feed on micro-algae. In New York and Connecticut marine scientists and progressive, sustainable ocean farmers are leading the way with restorative projects aimed at bio-remediating polluted waters and reviving “dead zones.” Sustainable seaweed and shellfish farming methods actively restore waters by extracting excess nutrients and capturing carbon. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Termed “Sequoia of the sea,” kelp soaks up five times more carbon than land plants and reduces acidification of the ocean.
Bioextraction initiatives have successfully been launched by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Island Sound Study in partnership with the New York state-funded Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan. Suffolk County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension leads in New York state with innovations and training in aquaculture methods since 1991. Importantly, they foster an educational hands-on connection with their coastal communities. CCE Marine Program Director, Chris Pickerell, says in Cornell Chronicles: “It’s important to engage the public in the whole process, so they understand how this works. It fosters a sense of stewardship, and that’s really important to us.”
To bolster these types of efforts, in 2017 Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised a total of $10.4 million to help restore the native shellfish population on Long Island – The Shellfish Restoration Initiative – with the aim of improving water quality as well as bolstering the coastal economy. Half of this grant has enabled CCE to build the largest shellfish hatchery in New York state. They most recently caused a big splash in bio-remediation by seeding 179 million shellfish in Long Island’s coastal waters as leaders of this initiative. After the hatchery, shellfish are grown in nurseries that are designed as floating upweller systems (FLUPSYs) to grow juvenile clams quickly, while volunteers help clean, sort and wash the clams and keep predators away.
For bioextraction to be successful, New York needs to support the aquaculture industry. Program consultant to LINAP David Berg suggests that “one way to achieve that is by considering some form of credit to shellfish and seaweed growers for the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide by cultivating these marine organisms.”
Farming seaweed and shellfish causes a ripple effect of goodness felt throughout the coastal ecosystem. In healthy oxygenated waters native eelgrass has the opportunity to take root again and recreate marine habitats for other species of aquatic life. Connecting land and sea, biodiversity is restored in healthy wetlands, with water fowl returning and migratory birds fed.
Climate resiliency is defined by our ability to adapt to changing times. If you’ve read “Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming” (Ed. Paul Hawken), you’ll find that there are many ingenious ways to adapt to changing times. It starts with new thinking. We shouldn’t think of us as saving the ocean, instead we should look to collaborate with marine organisms and in that process collectively save us all.
“If done effectively, ocean crop farming could also become a sustainable tool to help fight the effects of climate change whilst also addressing the emerging nutrition and water scarcity crisis…Products from seaweed have now been identified as a critical input for a range of new industries, such as food supplements, fertilizers, medication as well as a more sustainable packaging alternative to plastics.” (Ocean Crops: Is This The Next Frontier For Agriculture? Nishan Degnarain, Forbes July 29th 2020).