Scientific research to pave the way for sustainable seafood

Mike Graham, director of advancement and development at Moss Landing Marine Labs (MLML) Center for Aquaculture, wants to grow a sustainable future for his family of ten, one seaweed species at a time. Graham, who is rarely ever seen not wearing shorts, flip-flops and a plain T-shirt, believes he has developed a solution to the enigma of sustainable aquaculture using scientific research on marine ecology.

Multi-trophic aquaculture, as it is called by experts in the industry, is the process of harnessing systems already present in nature to close loops that would otherwise result in waste. Graham’s seaweed farm, Monterey Bay Seaweeds, is a perfect example of multi-trophic aquaculture.

“What I believe is that we need to feed a shit ton of people, and I don’t see how sustainable and responsible aquaculture is any worse than some of the agriculture that we currently do,” said Graham, who is the leading expert in phycology, the scientific study of algae, and an editor to the scientific Journal of Phycology, “When we think about [sustainable aquaculture], we have to gauge all our options and some of the modern technology for aquaculture is just phenomenal. We can really feed a lot of people and employ a lot of people in a sustainable way.”

The seaweed grown by Graham at MLML is produced in onshore tanks that are just out of the reach of the powerful surf of the Monterey Bay. The only inputs are water pumped directly from the Monterey Bay and sunlight, both of which are practically free.

Growing the seaweed can also be an ecological service due to the damaging effects of nutrient pollution that make it into the bay from the agricultural run-off of the Salinas Valley. The seaweeds absorb the nutrients to grow, including carbon dioxide, and Graham ends up with a sustainable product that he can sell to restaurants and chefs, who are eager to work with a fresh and delicious product that brings all the flavors of the ocean.

To really see multi-trophic aquaculture in effect, however, we have to look one step higher on the food chain. Abalone, who naturally feed on seaweed, are an essential component.

Aquaculturists who grow abalone, like Monterey Abalone Company (MAC), are concerned with ocean acidification, which occurs when the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels. Because the water is more acidic, it makes it difficult for abalone to grow and develop shells, especially the younger and smaller abalone. Through the scientific research pioneered by MLML, Graham has found a way to harness the power of nature to benefit both his product, the environment, and the abalone. Here is how it works:

Water is pumped directly from the Monterey Bay into the tanks holding Graham’s seaweed. The seaweed absorbs the nutrients to grow, including the carbon dioxide, and the water becomes much less acidic. The treated water can then be circulated into the tanks holding the baby abalone from MAC, who enjoy the less acidic water and can grow their shells more easily. The abalone excrete their waste into the water, which can then be recirculated to the seaweed tanks. The seaweed can reuse the nutrients excreted by thousands of baby abalone and in return that seaweed can be fed back to the abalone.

The result is a multitrophic closed-loop system where everyone benefits and the only inputs are water, sunlight and baby abalone spawned from adult abalone grown by MAC. Throughout the natural processes, there are zero nutrients added to the water, zero pesticides, zero antibiotics and it uses zero freshwater. Utilizing the power of nature and keeping other inputs low can help aquaculture farmers lower their operation costs, which is a key issue in the sustainable seafood market.

In places like Chile and China, who are leading the world in aquaculture production, the farms are usually not environmentally friendly due in part to low environmental restrictions and lack of enforcement. Graham believes the seafood market at large is to blame for the unsustainable methods being used to meet the demand for cheap seafood.

Graham hopes the research he is doing at MLML will help provide answers to farmers who want to be environmentally friendly, but need to keep their costs down.

“Chile follows the buck and if the money is in sustainable aquaculture, then they are going to do sustainable aquaculture,” said Graham, who had recently returned from a trip to Chile where he taught classes in aquaculture to graduate students. “What we’re trying to do is promote the profitability of sustainable aquaculture and hope that some of our philosophies and techniques get picked up by the Chileans and Chinese.”

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