Seaweed for dinner

Our current future scenario includes ocean system collapse, where we note that the collapse tends to be on the large predator end of things, while, to a larger degree, the smaller and less carnivorous parts of the ecosystem are less impacted. So unduly large amounts of energy and time are currently spent hunting bluefin tuna for high paying sushi aficionados, while carp, jellyfish and seaweeds are left, in general, alone and are even regarded as plagues. This is, of course not quite true. In  Unnatural history of the Sea, Callum Roberts talks about the way that overfishing can lead to a population boom of sea urchins, which then decimate seaweeds, leaving less space for young fish to hide while growing, allowing more sea urchins, etcetera. Our actions have repercussions, things are complex in the networks of ecosystems.

This has resonated strongly with an older question, that of vegetarian seafood. As a good friend put it, the surface of the ocean is not a significant moral dividing line, so a rejection of meat should imply a rejection of fish, regardless of what the Catholic church says about flesh and fish on Friday. However sea vegetables are complex, hard to find and strange to cook with. Not as hard as jellyfish though.

Seaweeds play a background, but important, role in contemporary society. As a source for iodine and other chemicals, as animal feed and as a food additive. However it seems that there are reasons to increase seaweed forestation. One of our speculative characters will follow the line laid down by Bren Smith, who has restarted his ship-board life by becoming a seaweed farmer after the fisheries collapsed from overfishing. This has earnt him, among other accolades, a Schumacher award. His example Thimble Island farm is the basis for the Green Wave development, which aims to encourage many small sea farmers to emerge. In the Netherlands and the UK, many experts (such as Jan Kruisse)  collect wild seaweeds, often for high end restaurants, while some small seaweed farms have been set up, feeding into the Dutch Weedburger.


Delicious Weedburger, tested on the Dutch coast before visiting the Zeewar site.

We are unsure how seaweed farming may or may not help with the dead zones, the resulting algal blooms caused, in large part, by the surplus agricultural run-off from fertilisers that are used in overabundance. There is hope that the seaweeds will act as a recipient for the nutrients, absorbing them but not dying like algae and cyanobacteria, causing eutrophication and anoxic (i.e. oxygen free) water that suffocates fish, molluscs and anything else living there. Perhaps seaweed farms can act as a barrier, like the fertile hedges bordering fields and maintaining biodiversity or the free fences providing shade and wind breaks on Australian sheep farms. Perhaps they, as Bren claims, help reduce tidal surges from storms, perhaps they act as refuges for juvenile fish and molluscs, incubating the necessary changes for recovery.

It is interesting looking at the way that we, as a global population, are breaking things and how we might slow that process down, perhaps even to a point where collapse in not necessary. Within the scenario we are currently  developing, we can take some guesses and look at ways that various strategies might play out. How will they effect everyday life? With fish and shellfish replaced by seaweeds and jellyfish in restaurant menus, with the ocean often poisonous from algal blooms and the beach unenjoyable, how is life in a coastal town? What are the everyday notices and decisions? How nice is it to live beside the seashore, to be beside the sea?

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