“From now through the next decade, we can create catalytic changes that allow us to regenerate, rebuild, and restore the lost abundance of our oceans. So, that by 2050, our children have the same abundance that my grandfather once knew.”
- Alexandra Cousteau
These days, it can be hard not to feel discouraged about the rapidly declining health and precarious state of our oceans. But the greatest disservice we could do for our oceans is to admit defeat. Which is why Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of marine conservation pioneer Jacques Cousteau, has a very different message: not only is it possible to restore our oceans to a place of unimaginable abundance and diversity, it will be profitable as well.
Born into an iconic family of ocean explorers, Alexandra was introduced to the wonders of the oceans at an early age and advocates for its conservation and restoration. She joined our latest episode of Where We Grow From Here to share her unique perspective on the state of our oceans and the actions that her organization Oceans 2050 is taking to catalyze regenerative markets while mitigating climate change.
Her approach is founded on the research of Chief Scientist Professor Carlos Duarte, whose research, “Rebuilding Marine Life” published on April 1 2020 in the scientific journal Nature. The paper documents the recovery of marine populations, habitats and ecosystems following past conservation interventions and provides evidence-based recommendations about the solutions needed to achieve abundant oceans. Oceans 2050's strategy was born from Daurte’s findings and is centered on “five recovery wedges'': Oceans Forests, Regenerative Ocean Farming, Future of Seafood, Coral Reefs and Blue Carbon.
Seaweed Farming, the first major project on Oceans 2050’s agenda, shows promise to restore our oceans and climate while lifting up communities most impacted by climate change. According to Alexandra, “We saw our input as a chance to shape an industry, shape the conversation around what a regenerative blue economy could look like, and really help to understand its impact for climate action.”
Megan Reilly Cayten, Chief Commercial Officer at Oceans 2050 joined Alexandra on our podcast to share her perspectives on the potential for seawood as a regenerative agriculture opportunity. She said, “Seaweed sequesters carbon and is very effective at absorbing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which can reverse dead zones in the oceans. Seaweed provides temporary refuge against increasing temperatures and also acidification. That means that it is able to promote marine biodiversity, because it allows calcifiers to continue to calcify and other diverse marine organisms to flourish, as well as providing a habitat for baby fish thus enhancing fisheries.”
Seaweed can be a crucial crop for global food security as it does not compete for arable land and freshwater. Seaweed farming also supports jobs and livelihoods, particularly for rural or indigenous communities and for women. One of the partner farms that Oceans 2050 is currently working with supports 1,600 households, 40% of which are headed by women. As Megan put it, “Its potential to provide really profound ecosystem services to the ocean, its potential to support the just transition and provide for food security and employment to rural and indigenous communities on the coast and its potential to be a climate change mitigation solution for the oceans. It's really the only one we have right now that we can scale up.”
According to Professor Duarte, seaweed farming currently occupies less than 2,000 square kilometers of ocean and has the potential to scale up by more than 1,000 times, while remaining within the limits of absorbing only excess nitrogen and phosphorus that are contributed to the oceans from anthropogenic sources. In an effort to help seaweed markets realize this potential for growth, Oceans 2050 is currently conducting a study, the Seaweed Carbon Farming Project, to further assess the role of seaweed aquaculture as a key recovery wedge for the world’s oceans and the climate system. The 15 month study will quantify carbon sequestration by seaweed in sediment below 19 seaweed farms in 12 countries on five continents. The goal is to establish a robust scientific foundation to support the development of seaweed carbon markets and allow farmers to monetize the positive carbon impacts of their operations.
Based on the study’s results, Oceans 2050 will develop a methodology for a voluntary carbon offset market, which, once approved, will make possible the issuance of carbon credits to buyers and enable the global expansion of this sustainable solution to climate change and ocean degradation. As Alexandra put it, “Seaweed offers us an opportunity to create a market around an industrial feedstock that is regenerative to the oceans and not exploitative...That was really exciting for us.”
The work that Oceans 2050 is doing to call attention to ocean degradation and support oceans solutions could not come soon enough. Despite the ocean being a life support system for the planet, ocean conservation is the least prioritized of all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. But according to Alexandra, the good news is that we don’t need to rely on philanthropy to close this gap--the oceans are a lucrative investment. According to Professor Duarte’s estimates, sustainable and restorative ocean activity generates a $10 return for every $1 invested. "We need engineers, technologists, inventors,” she says. “We need all kinds of additional sources of knowledge and experience and talent and ability to solve these problems."
But potentially the most resonant part of Alexandra’s message is you don’t have to be an engineer or a scientist or investor to be a crucial part of the solution. Individuals can take steps to reverse ocean degradation by reducing plastic use and prioritizing sustainably sourced seafood. There is also a lot of exciting environmental and ocean related legislation on the horizon that citizens in the US and around the world can support by voting for policy makers who have made oceans a priority. Lastly, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of education and teaching our children to value and respect the ocean.
“Teach your children to love nature and love the ocean and understand how beautiful and important those places are for us. It's been well documented that nature plays an important role in our psyche and our sense of well-being and our health. Passing that on to our children is one of the greatest gifts that we can give them.”
- Alexandra Cousteau