Marine Permaculture

This is an excerpt from David Holgren’s article The Problem is the Solution: but solutions can turn back into (the same old) problems.

Brian Von Herzen of the Climate Foundation coined the term ‘marine permaculture’ to describe systems to grow kelp forests that can be harvested for food, feed and fertiliser, sequester carbon and create habitat to support thriving and diverse fish populations. Beyond restoration of kelp forests already lost to warming oceans, Von Herzen’s vision extends to colonising open ocean environments by artificial upwelling of cold nutrient-rich water from lower levels.

By creating kelp forest ecosystems where none existed, these projects, proposals and visions are analogous to early permaculture visions of terrestrial forests that would restore degraded and desert landscapes with species able to ameliorate the local, and even bioregional, climate while providing abundant food, fodder, fuel and structural materials for people. But nature’s design rules and limits that define permaculture in marine environments are quite different to the terrestrial realm.

Seaweeds, especially the fast growing and massive kelp species of temperate climate regions, need a substrate close enough to the surface to ensure adequate light for photosynthesis. In nature, this occurs along coastlines where shallow depth and wave turbulence combine with runoff from rivers to provide necessary nutrients. In the same way that wharves, offshore rigs and wrecks can provide artificial reefs to support shellfish, coral and associated fish life, designed submerged structures can provide the substrate for kelp forests away from coasts. With the reduced impact of storm surges, kelp growth can be regulated by herbivorous fish grazing and harvesting. Nutrients can be supplied or supplemented by irrigation from deeper nutrient rich colder water, the pumping of which may even be possible using the diffuse energy in the thermal gradient between warmer surface and colder deep water.

Fast-growing kelps sequester carbon at a faster rate than forest trees. The kelp can then be refined into bio-oil fuels or cut and let sink into deep ocean storage on a scale to match that of the climate emergency. Von Herzen sees marine permaculture as having the potential to steer the earth back to a safe climate without the risk of most forms of geo-engineering. However, permaculture principles suggest starting with more modest in-shore seaweed farming enterprises at the hectare scale before the development of hundred hectare arrays in the open ocean. Naturally enough, vast operations in the oceanic commons, subject to the laws of the sea rather than nation state land laws, raises all sorts of alarm bells for many – and the risk of this solution creating novel foreseen and unforeseen problems if the design rules of globalised industrial capitalism drive the process.

I have been participating in discussions and documentation with Brian von Herzen (and Scott Spillias from The University of Queensland) in a project to articulate permaculture ethics and design principles as a framework to guide not just seaweed farm projects but more generally in the ‘Blue Economy’, focusing on the resources of the ocean to sustain humanity. Much of the government and corporate promotion and efforts to develop the Blue Economy show all the signs of making the mistakes of industrial aquaculture, and more generally of industrial agriculture. We hope to draw in experts in diverse aspects of oceanic conservation, marine resource management and mariculture to support a framework that can hopefully guide fisherfolk, mariners, consumers, investors and policymakers towards virtuous circles of regenerative abundance rather than repeating vicious cycles of greed, simplification of nature’s diversity, overharvesting and inequity in access to and control of nature’s abundance.

Our vision includes the reinvigoration and flowering of indigenous and traditional cultures of sea faring and dwelling peoples using new technology and communication systems to regenerate cultures of flow in tune with the oceanic realm where access is more important than ownership. It is just possible that what we learn in the oceanic commons might inform and reform how we harmonise husbandry of the terrestrial commons where the vast majority of humanity dwells.