The promise of protein from the seas

‘Forget sponges, corals, sea fans, and sea weed: ancient, blossoming sea forests and coral reefs are now Flanders trenches’

Bright Green
Cod, pollock and other sea fish (© Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Across the world, slumdwellers live from factory starches, eked out with a bit of palm oil and sugar, and a smidgen of powdered skimmed milk, or a bite of “soybeans on legs,” or shed-raised chicken. No wonder that many poor people are stunted, anaemic, at times blind, and riddled with heart disease and diabetes. Don’t be fooled by rotund babies and large matrons: these are half-starved people.

You and I can be vegans. We can afford B12 vitamins and iron pills. But what proteins can the poor eat?

We have trashed our soils, emptied our seas, and poisoned the air. Game, fish, and fowl—bushmeat—are luxury rituals, whether grouse in Britain, songbirds in Malta, or monkeys in China. To follow the paleodiet, you have to have serious money.

Free range, antibiotic-free meat is costly, too. And flat dwellers can hardly raise a pig or keep hens.

Sustainable wild fish could have fed us all. But fishing fleets have hunted them to extinction. The North Sea’s herring, bluefin tuna and common skate fisheries have all collapsed. Two per cent of larger North Sea fish survive, 0.3 per cent of cod.  Trawlers pulverise the North Sea’s coastal sea bottoms two, three, or even ten times a year. Forget sponges, corals, sea fans, and sea weed: ancient, blossoming sea forests and coral reefs are now Flanders trenches. The once richest cod fishery in the world, on the Canadian Scotian Shelf, has been closed since 1992. Yet the cod never returned. What would they return to? Their world is destroyed.

Remove a keystone species—an apex predator—and the trophic cascade collapses. North Carolina harvested 1.4 million pounds of scallop meat in 1928, and 150 pounds in 2004. Cownose rays, a toxic-barbed fish fond of scallops, skyrocketed when sharks were fished out.

But fish also disappear when their prey disappear. In England, river flies—food for salmon and trout—have dwindled, as phosphorus-polluted, insecticide-laden farm soils erode into rivers. Starving salmon and trout wilt in ever warmer and shallower waters. They need cool, deep, leaf-littered, and wood-strewn rivers, which in turn need bank forests and beavers. Even angling and fly fishing is coming to an end.

Protein-hungry humanity has turned to caged, intensively reared animals as a novel, brittle, and cruel way to lower the price (but not the cost) of protein. Most white meat, eggs, and milk originate in huge petri dishes for antibiotic-resistant zoonotic diseases. Illnesses jump species: witness the coronavirus. Avian influenza and African swine flu wiped out factory hens and caged pigs. Humans escaped—this time.

So, what’s for dinner? Microbes? Insects? Factory-grown animal cells? Fake fish, grown from CRISPR-Cas9 bio-engineered soy, fungi, seaweed, algae, fish cells, or microbes?

Or will we turn to blue farming? Floating, coldblooded creatures efficiently convert feed into food. And fish farming is ancient—from Europe’s medieval carp ponds to China’s rice-fish paddies. We create “blue farms” out of ponds, mangrove swamps, and the sea—though less so lakes, since we prefer larger cesspits. For the same reason, ocean fish farms are moving into deeper waters.

We dose blue-farmed lifeforms with antibiotics and pesticides that leak into seas and swamps. Even so, parasites and diseases devastate caged sea animals (just as iatrogenic illnesses devastate caged land animals).

Our favourite fish are the tigers of the sea: top predators like tuna, swordfish, cod, and salmon. Having functionally exterminated them at sea, we attempt to cage them, while our diesel-fuelled fish fleets catch their prey. We empty the oceans to feed fish.

This is unsustainable. It is also unnecessary. If we curbed our frenzied greed, the oceans would produce enough wild fish to feed humanity. If we could restore natural cod numbers, we could fish huge numbers without damaging the stock. Perhaps too we could restore cods’ natural size: we humans have genetically dwarfed today’s cods (and most over-fished fish), since only those individuals can breed who are small enough to escape through net-holes while sexually mature.

We could farm fish and shrimp sustainably, without human medicines or environmental toxins, while managing faeces. But not at sea. It would have to be in farm ponds, whose dunged waters fertilise fields. We may not enjoy tilapia or carp. But beggars can’t be choosy.

Once, our oceans cleaned themselves. But Britain’s vast oyster beds, mussel reefs, and coral reefs went, as dredges pulverize sea floors, also within our ironically named Marine Protected Areas. Expect no change on that from Brexit. The EU and Britain are squabbling only over who gets to exterminate marine life.

Perhaps farmed oysters and mussels might feed us in our ruins. They stay put, and need no food. Also, they cleanse the nitrogen that farmers flush to sea, causing our many dead zones. Sweden recently grew mussels in polluted bays. Local people, glad to have the toxic algae gone, protested when the scientists and their mussels left.

But even ocean-farmed mussels and oysters are not an end game. The oceans are turning acid, as they absorb part of the carbon dioxide we release, thus melting calcium-based ocean life, including octopus, corals, clams, lobsters, crabs, oysters, mussels, and plankton. Pteropods, small, translucent snails that are the basis for life in Antarctica’s seas, are corroding, as acid waters melt their shells. When they disappear, the eco-world of the Southern Ocean will collapse. So will waters nearer us humans. Pteropods feed juvenile salmon in the Pacific Northwest, for example.

Krill, shrimplike crustaceans grazing algae under polar ice, will largely go by 2100. So, therefore, will the world’s largest animal ever, the blue whale. And our warmer, less oxygenated, and more acidic oceans turn coral reefs into lifeless mounds, coated in green slime. The competition is admittedly stiff. But our grandchildren might remember our destruction of sea life as our greatest ecocide. The oceans house our last megafauna, and they are the only ecosystems where life does not panic beholding man. Hence the magic of diving. For a few glorious moments, you are an animal among others, and not a demon of death.

Only, we still are. Shell-based ocean lifeforms will not endure across the twenty-first century. Though scientists tell us jellyfish will still do well. And they contain protein. Chips with that?