Ocean health and the ‘blue economy’

From dense kelp forests ready to be harvested for food to wave-powered energy turbines lighting up city skies, there is a wide world of possibilities within the emerging “blue economy.” But time is running short to institute fresh new ideas that might fight warming sea temperatures and rising acidity, protecting ocean water for future generations.

“The ocean is becoming warm, breathless and sour. The ocean is absorbing a lot of the extra heat in the atmosphere … It’s becoming breathless,” journalist and author Alanna Mitchell said during a recent panel discussion hosted by Santa Monica College’s Public Policy Institute and The Broad Stage. “It’s losing some of its capacity to hold dissolved oxygen and it’s becoming sour, so it’s becoming more acidic.

“Together, scientists talk about these as the ‘toxic cocktail,’” Mitchell continued. “It’s an incredibly serious situation. The ocean is the life support system of the planet and its ability to support life is being impaired.”

On Monday, the SMC Public Policy Institute and The Broad Stage hosted a panel of experts for a virtual talk about ocean health and the “blue economy” — think of it like the “green economy” of the sea — featuring the award winning author. Mitchell was joined by local conservationist Annelisa Moe, a Heal the Bay water quality specialist, and Terry Tamminen, former California EPA secretary to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and current CEO of AltSea, a public-private ocean institute.

Mitchell, a Toronto-based reporter and author of the award winning nonfiction book “SeaSick,” will soon be on stage at The Broad presenting a theatrical adaptation of her bestselling book. The unusual artistic endeavor is a one-woman show about her journey getting to the heart of the ocean and there discovering its maladies.

The ocean is like a sponge saturated with water, said Tamminen, who appeared on the panel via video call from Dubai, in that it is so inundated with carbon and acid that it is not able to absorb any more of the harmful chemicals.

“Imagine a sponge that is full of water and can’t absorb any more water,” Tamminen said. “You’re trying to wring it out a little bit so that you can absorb more water, and we shouldn’t have to do that to essentially continue to make the ocean capable of continuing to be our dumping ground.”

But even with its promise, the blue economy is a new sector and there is a danger of it causing the environment more harm than good.

“We can see what we’ve done on land and it would be really — if we don’t do it right, if we don’t think about it carefully and really plan it and be intentional about it — it would be easy to do more damage to the ocean,” Mitchell said. “What I find interesting about the blue economy is just the challenges and the opportunities that it does represent.”

Fortunately, Mitchell, Tamminen and Moe said there are still options to turn the “blue economy” into a “restorative economy.”

“There has been a blue economy in the past and we’ve done everything, of course, from oil drilling and draining wetlands — turning them into usable land — and various other things,” Tamminen said, later adding, “Our approach is to is to try to harness the ocean economy in a positive way, with regenerative aquaculture, things that are actually helping to restore nature’s balance — for example, growing large amounts of giant kelp, which grows as much as two feet a day, which can sequester a tremendous amount of carbon, but which can also be a sustainable source of food and fuel and pharmaceuticals in the future.”

Moe said her organization, the nonprofit Heal the Bay, was working on an aquatic lab to study and teach about aquaculture. According to Moe, aquaculture can not only provide food, but also restore native habitats and provide specimens to live in aquariums to educate the public.

“For anybody who’s maybe not familiar with that term, it’s sort of the aquatic equivalent of agriculture, but ideally with a major focus on sustainability,” Moe said. “Being able to provide a sustainable local food source; also being able to rear local species for aquarium advocacy, which, of course, Heal the Bay does, and that removes the need for collecting from wild populations. We can sort of leave those. And it also offers some opportunities for habitat restoration.”

Mitchell’s one-woman show, directed by Franco Boni and Ravi Jain, will premiere on The Broad Stage in April, with three performances on April 15-16. More information can be found at thebroadstage.org.


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