This article is part of our new series of Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are changing our lives.
Marty Odlin, who grew up and lives on the Maine coast, remembers how the ocean used to be. But now he said, “It’s like a desert and only in my life.” In recent years he has seen a lot of seaweed and many other species have practically disappeared from the coast.
39-year-old Odlin comes from a fishing family and has a passion for the history of the ocean and the coast. Both shaped his feeling for the decline of the ocean, a small part of the catastrophic extinction of marine life over the last several hundred years.
With his engineering training, Mr. Odlin decided to reverse that decline with his Portland-based company Running Tide. Using a combination of robotics, sensors and machine learning, he is building an aquaculture business that now sells oysters and eventually mussels. He also uses this system to grow kelp with the goal of producing enough of that kelp to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and permanently fix it by burying it on the ocean floor and selling carbon offsets.
The company also plans to sow oyster reefs and mussel beds along the coast and restore kelp forests and seaweed to support the coastal ecosystem by restoring biodiversity and improving water quality, among other things.
Mr. Odlin’s plans are part of a series of efforts in the “blue economy,” a term used to describe doing business on the oceans, seas and coasts. He and others are trying to prove that marine conservation, sustainable fisheries, and carbon sequestration can be good for business, especially as global shipping, aquaculture, and the appetite for wild seafood increase worldwide.
Mr Odlin and his team build everything: boats, oyster swimmers, sensors and more, all with a very high sensitivity to their surroundings. They measure the amount of food in the water and the growth rate of the different species and send this information into a database where they make all sorts of decisions: whether to change the food, reposition the mussel swimmers, or major changes to the varieties they grow. They also take advantage of the hard-earned knowledge of the commercial fishermen – there are about a dozen employees – which, according to Odlin, was a huge benefit.
The climate crisis requires technological innovations and “hard hats and steel caps,” he said.
Dan Watson, General Manager and Co-Founder of SafetyNet Technologies, has also recognized the benefits of working with industry and demonstrating profitability.
His company builds high-tech fishing nets for trawlers: LED lights are attached to the nets that flash in different patterns and brightness levels to signal emergency exit hatches (holes of the right size) for the species that fishing boats are not trying to catch together known as bycatch.
Studies have shown that LED lights can significantly reduce the amount of unwanted species ending up in fishing nets.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 9.1 million tons, or just over 10 percent of all fish caught annually, are discarded, with nearly half coming from trawls.
At a time of overfishing and habitat shifting due to climate change that contradicts international regulations, reducing the amount of fish or other marine animals accidentally caught could have important consequences for the health of various populations, as well as the biodiversity of the oceans as a whole . Mr. Watson said.
“When I started all of this, I was a student and I had a mindset, ‘This is going to save the world and everyone should do it,” said Watson.
“I had to move on to the issue, ‘Here’s the value proposition and there’s a strong financial case for catching the right fish,’ he added. ‘We can show the crews,’ This is where you save fuel, this is where you save Fines. ‘”
Others also see the value of working with industry groups. Whale Safe is an initiative by the University of California at Santa Barbara to help large ships avoid hitting whales while passing through ports in Los Angeles. The program was in part in response to shipping lines asking for help, according to Douglas McCauley, professor of marine science at UCSB
Ship attacks, as they are known, are among the leading causes of whale death, and 2018 and 2019 were the worst years to record collisions on the west coast. A total of 27 deaths led to 22 deaths, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration. Scientists estimate that the actual number of whales killed by ships could be much higher – as many as 80 per year off the west coast, according to one study – as not all bodies are discovered.
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Dr. McCauley helped bring marine technologists working at UCSB together to develop a real-time detection system for whales in the Santa Barbara Channel. Three inputs were combined: an artificial intelligence algorithm that analyzes whale sounds, classifies them by species and sends the data for review; a remote sensing system that predictably predicts the presence of whales; and simple old citizen science where trained whale watchers log whales into a mobile app.
“It doesn’t help to just say, ‘Southern California is likely to be cloudy with the chance of blue whales,” and this model predicts on a much finer scale, said Dr. McCauley.
The system provides the information to ships in a simplified rubric of low, medium, high and very high so that they can slow down when there are whales nearby, which can significantly reduce the number of ship attacks. Whale Safe only provides data on this particular stretch of the California coast, but Dr. McCauley said they plan to expand to San Francisco and possibly elsewhere in North America.
When ships slow down, they use less fuel, which leads to fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. The global shipping industry causes nearly 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Cargo ships usually burn dirty fuel, which releases pollutants like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, which can cause various cancers and asthma in children in people in port cities. Air pollution also generally disproportionately affects color communities.
In just six months, slower speeds in the Santa Barbara and San Francisco areas helped reduce nitrous oxide pollution by more than 530 tons and greenhouse gas emissions by 17,000 tons.
Saving the whales could also have tremendous climatic benefits, said Dr. McCauley.
During their lifetime and when they die, whales help sequester enormous amounts of carbon dioxide in two ways. When whales are alive, they provide phytoplankton (which takes up carbon dioxide) with the nutrients they need to grow. When whales die, their bodies sink to the bottom of the ocean and over time they become part of the marine sediment layer, where they can sequester the carbon dioxide they have accumulated during their lifespan, an average of 33 tons for a large species of whale. Keep it out of the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years.
Each of these projects requires a more hands-on approach to ocean saving and a more conscious intersection of business and conservation that have historically been at odds, said Odlin, founder of Running Tide.
“We need to play a more active role in solving the problem we are seeing,” he said. “And how do you take on a more active role? The moral imperative is that you have to build something on the scale of the problem. “
Otherwise, he said, “Generations before us will not be forgiven.”
“We still have a chance right now, so I’ll work as hard as I can.”