I recently attended the two conferences that heralded the start of the Galway Seafest 2016…The BIM National Seafood Conference 2016….
…and ‘Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth’ held at NUIG….
Both conferences spoke of the sustainable development of the ocean’s resources to secure our economic future. It was a splendid display of industry and development experts and leaders talking about long-term thinking and sustainability….but sustainable for what ecosystems and for exactly how long? Long enough for our grandchildren to be OK? How about our great grandchildren? And what about future generations?
Although there was very little mention of seaweed at either conference, industry is starting to turn its attention to, and use the term ‘sustainable’ for, the development of seaweed. The danger is that seaweed will be developed ‘sustainably’ as yet another resource that can be used for our consumption, like fossil fuel reserves, minerals for building materials and soil to produce our food, with the same devastating consequences.
Industry talks about sustainability in terms of the ability to guarantee supply…can we continue to extract/increase these yields without threatening our ability to continue to extract/increase these yields? The problem with sustainability is that it does not take a wide enough view of the eco-systems involved. Instead of asking…’can we continue to do this without getting to a stage where we cannot do this anymore?’...we need to be asking…’how can we produce food whilst regenerating ecosystems we have already damaged, and prevent damage to ecosystems we have not yet started to exploit?
How can we possibly know anything about this without understanding the complexity of the ecosystems involved? All this talk about sustainability makes us feel like we are doing something to address the massive environmental problems we are causing and facing as a species. The rapid death of our coral reefs over the past 30 years supports the view that sustainability is not enough.
When it comes to seaweed, businesses are planning to exploit ecosystems about which we have very little knowledge, dealing with resources we have not yet mapped, based on developments we cannot even calculate, due to a set of variables about which we know nothing. It is essential that we do not treat the oceans’ algae in the same way that we have exploited so many other ‘commodities’, or aspects of ecosystems, without anticipating the side effects…
Seaweed produces a food source and soaks up much of the CO2 we generate. Everyone is citing the fact that micro and macro algae produce 50% of the world’s oxygen. How exactly do people propose to fix that system if we break it? We used to talk of the rainforests as the lungs of the planet. The oceans also act as the lungs of the planet thanks to algae, which, like plants, produce oxygen through photosynthesis. We rely on that oxygen for all our life processes. If we do anything to alter the oceans’ ability to produce oxygen for us, we will set off a catastrophic chain of events.
We need to move away from managing resources towards managing ecosystems. Dr Robin Hadlock-Seeley has done an extensive study on the impact of the mechanical cutting of seaweed in Cobscook Bay in Maine. She has found that, due to mechanical cutting, ecosystems are being destroyed and cannot possibly regenerate within their normal seasonal time frames. We have no idea about the long-term, wider ramifications of this on all the species affected. We have to do more research over time.
The really important thing is that the earth’s resources are not just there for us to use up until they are all gone. The earth is an extremely complex set of interdependent ecosystems on which our lives depend. The hedonistic heyday of humans taking whatever they want, whenever they want and doing whatever they want with it is going to have to stop. This usury approach to ecosystems that we do not fully understand has created a dangerous set of circumstances, not only for ourselves but for many other species.
Humans are consumers of commodities that drive the global economy. The inter-linked ecosystems of the planet drive the activities of humans. Sooner or later, humans will realise they have to produce stuff in ways that are consistent with and supportive of natural ecosystems. In the drive to Harness Our Ocean Wealth it is essential to care for our Ocean Health.
Algae exist in one very special ecosystem permeating all of our oceans. It is essential that we adopt a very intelligent and cautious strategy for interacting with algae. They do have the potential to produce many nutrients for us, but we could so easily mismanage that interaction through lack of knowledge and care. We could even think about algae as providing us with a possible way to slow down climate change, absorbing more CO2 and cooling down the oceans. We could just as easily get to a stage where we destroy the oceans’ ecosystems so much that they cannot produce oxygen or soak up carbon dioxide.
Chances are we will fall short of our targets for sensitive management, so it is important to set our targets way beyond what we believe we can achieve. That’s what makes them targets. We work towards them. Let’s imagine a global policy on seaweed development which sustains the long-term health of oceans as ecosystems which can support life on earth for many centuries to come. What would our policies look like then?
All development issues need to be considered to ensure exactly the right actions for this fragile and precious ecosystem, and that includes addressing the dumping of waste into the oceans. All stakeholders need to be represented and have their concerns addressed, and that includes our unborn children.
With its position on the edge of the Atlantic, Ireland could lead the way and make sure the correct projects and research are funded to take this development in the right direction. Our position in the north Atlantic makes us custodians of huge areas of oxygen-generating, algae-rich waters, which support the entire planet. Any actions we take could enhance and support global ecosystems. Or Ireland could trade away the ability of future generations to exist on the planet, and treat seaweed as yet another resource to be used up for short-term profit.
This is not a gold rush. It is not about exploiting the resource as quickly as possible before the regulations get tighter. It is about developing seaweed in the Global interest. This will add value to the resource as it is regarded with the respect it deserves. The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund needs to be spent on more ambitious projects which foster the regeneration of ecosystems that have already been decimated and safeguard those that are only just starting to be exploited.
The planet can exist without humans. Humans cannot exist without the planet. Seaweed is our last chance to do something really positive for the human population.
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