Mutiny on the Majestic Blue
Kalee Thompson
29114

The Future of Food

Mission Blue II: Papua New Guinea to Solomon Islands, October 10 — October 16, 2015. Photo: Ryan Lash

Five years ago, I was among a group of scientists, activists, artists and policymakers who went to the Galapagos with a mission to explore the biggest issues facing our ocean — and identify actionable solutions. This voyage, Mission Blue, was the result of Dr. Sylvia Earle’s TED Prize, for which I was the director.

That trip played a catalytic role in ocean conservation. When Sylvia won the TED Prize in 2009, only 15 marine reserves (“hope spots”) existed; now there are 50. Less than 1% of the ocean was protected; now over 3% — about 3 million square miles — is under some kind of protection from industrial fishing, dumping and drilling.

It also changed the trajectory of my work.

It seems almost too perfect a parallel that I‘m writing this post aboard Mission Blue II. We’re again with Dr. Earle — a group of activists, scientists, technologists and policymakers aboard National Geographic Orion, traveling from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands.

Mission Blue II: Papua New Guinea to Solomon Islands, October 10 — October 16, 2015. Photo: Ryan Lash

Yet this time I am no longer the TED Prize director, but the co-founder of the sole investment fund (Aqua-Spark) devoted to advancing sustainable aquaculture — or the farming of fish, plants like seaweed, shellfish and crustaceans. I started it with Mike Velings, a Dutch businessman and conservationist I met aboard the first Mission Blue. We understood that at odds are the need to feed a growing global population and an ocean that is being tapped out. In short, from where are we going to get our food to meet world demand?

Mike Velings aboard Mission Blue II: Papua New Guinea to Solomon Islands, October 10- 16, 2015. Photo: Ryan Lash

The UN predicts we will reach 9.7 billion people in 2050, and possibly 11 billion by the end of this century. So in the next 40 years, we will have to double food production and produce more than we have in the past 6,000 years combined.

It’s a staggering challenge, and our current system cannot feed the world. Yet one solution that’s often overlooked is farmed fish. It baffles me that aquaculture is snubbed.

For one, it’s the least intensive form of protein to grow. While beef takes at least 8 to 9 pounds of feed for one pound of beef, and nearly 8000 liters of fresh water, farming one pound of fish is possible with just 1 pound of feed (depending on the species). Further, fish requires virtually no water. As we say, fish swim in it; they don’t really drink it.

Photo Brian Skerry. Harvesting catfish at America’s Catch catfish farm in Ita Benna. Mississippi.

There is also the issue of traceability — in other words, where did that fish you ordered off the menu come from? With wild catch, in most cases there is no way to know. Nor can we know what it ate or the pollution it possibly encountered. The reality is that at most, we know where the fish was caught.

This is not to say fish farming hasn’t deserved critique. Like any industry, there are serious environmental challenges, which is precisely what Aqua-Spark is looking to fix. And it must happen now, as we’re at a crucial moment. 2015 marks the year in which aquaculture has — for the first time in history — produced more fish than we catch from the wild (about 65 million tons).

Photo Brian Skerry. A diver swims along rows of sugar kelp being grown at an experimental farm off Vancouver Island.

With Aqua-Spark, we invest in small to medium-sized business that can truly change the industry when scaled. For one, it’s smart business, but it’s also a chance to shape the future of our food while protecting the ocean’s remaining species.

It’s hard to name the many remarkable people we’ve met in the process — from Mission Blue to our partner World Fish to our investees — who are changing the face of aquaculture. We are at a moment of so much innovation, knowledge sharing and change — think agriculture before the green revolution.

Most recently we invested in eFishery, an award winning technology created by three brilliant, young Indonesian men who identified a problem and solved it. eFishery monitors, records and distributes fish feed. While this might sound like a small piece of technology for a massive industry, it’s revolutionary. Fish feed is the single greatest challenge for aquaculture and accounts for 50–80% of overhead. Too much feed leads to economic losses and serious pollution. Not enough, and the fish don’t grow and their immune systems weaken, also leading to economic losses.

Photo courtesy of eFishery

Here aboard Mission Blue II, I am exhilarated by the prospect of continuing to shape, grow and change aquaculture for the better. And that we can help to relieve the terrible pressures on the ocean is a key driver in our work.

Too often we read about the plight of the ocean and its species, which is both heartbreaking and paralyzing. But aquaculture does provide hope. It is the future of food.