Man is now looking to the oceans to provide additional food for hungry millions. Will the plan work? Or will it threaten earth's "last resource"?
By THE YEAR 2000, sea farmers in diving vessels assisted by remote control harvesters are to reap plants in ocean-bottom seaweed forests, some authorities tell us. Man-made islands resting on "sea-legs," they tell us, will dot the oceans of the world to harvest the riches of the seas. The islands will provide stable harbors from which men will herd fish like cattle. People will sit in their submarine homes and gaze through picture windows at underwater meadows of algae on which herds of "sea cows" graze. Deep-sea ranchers using underwater tractors and submarines will reap harvests of giant seaweed beds and ride herd on grazing fish. Air bubbles rising from compressed-air hoses would corral the fattened fish. Suction pipes would draw the fish to ships above, where they would be "irradiated" (preserved) by radiation doses, and packaged. Robot harvesting machines would gather up migratory schools of fish and whizz them to processing vessels. Underwater research centers would dot the ocean floor — pioneering for future millions who may well build entire ocean-bottom communities below the crowded, polluted surface of the earth! This is not just science fiction! All these ideas have been proposed by scientists in search of new food sources for the world's ever-growing population. But how realistic is that hope? And, where are we today in terms of efficiently tapping the ocean food resource?
The Origin of the Dream
The food-from-the-sea dream promulgated a few years back was based on theoretical estimates that the ocean's fish harvest could be increased to many times its current yield. The total biological production of the ocean is said to be about 400 billion tons of organic material per year. This includes the growth of the plankton that feed the ocean's food chains. Since man is presently taking only about 60 to 70 million tons of seafood a year (only a small portion of the sea's organic production), many assume the ocean harvest could be greatly increased. Some marine biologists have estimated that 150 to 200 million tons of seafood are directly at our fingertips. Such estimates have spurred man's efforts into the "inner space" of oceans to close the ever-widening food and protein gap. Already scientists of nations such as Japan have been developing new and improved methods of extracting fish from the ocean. Their efforts have brought new "space-age" advances to the fishing industry. But, this increasing exploitation of commercial fishes is causing alarm among many biologists. Rather than having an inexhaustible supply of fish, the ocean is showing signs that man is dangerously near overfishing certain species. Though these space-age advances have greatly increased fish catches, they have also led to overexploitation.
Ocean NOT "Unlimited"
Reports once claimed that the wide ocean was a vast storehouse of food. "All we must do," went the proposals, "is farm this ready-made meat-on-the-fin, and we will solve the food shortage crisis." But a closer look at this dream of "ocean plenty" presents a less optimistic picture. About 90 percent of the ocean and nearly three fourths of the earth's surface is essentially a biological desert. It produces a tiny fraction of the world's present fish catch and has little or no potential for yielding more in the future. Most of the ocean is too deep for light to penetrate deep enough to support much life. The great fishing grounds of the world are close to shore where powerful upwelling currents bring nutrients to the surface. Here thrive the plankton, the many plants and the small sea creatures that provide food for larger fishes caught by man. These nutrient-rich continental shelves are being fished somewhere near a maximum efficiency now. A recent analysis of fish availability in the ocean put the maximum sustainable commercial fish yield at around 100 million metric tons — somewhat less than twice the 1967 yield of 60 million. Estimates of a higher yield would require moving down the food chain from the big fish normally caught to the plunderous harvesting of such food sources as plankton.
Plankton — the microscopic plants and animals that swarm ocean waters — have been called the "nutritious soup of the sea." In the rich, cold Antarctic waters, a baby blue whale strains enough plankton to put on 80 pounds a day, and to grow to 65 feet in length by its second birthday. Some scientists have envisioned atomic-powered "whales" gulping down shiploads of plankton and regurgitating them into the larders of the world. "By 1984," a scientist once predicted, "krill may be making the greatest addition to man's food supply of the century.... " The abundance of plankton in the oceans once led many to believe that someday it might be the answer to the population-food crisis. "Find a way to reap this highly-nutritious, floating protein at the doorsteps of undernourished nations," some scientists reasoned, "and we will be able to feed our hungry, over-populated world." But the days of plankton steaks and planktonburgers are not as sure as at first hoped. Besides the problem of reaping the right type of plankton adrift (some species are poisonous), these krill concentrations vary from place to place, season to season, and even day to day. In rich areas like the Gulf of Maine or the North Sea, 5000 tons of water would have to be strained to get 10 pounds of plankton. The most important question is, what would happen to fish higher on the food chain if man began heavily exploiting plankton — the foundation of the food chain in the sea? The whole ecology of the ocean could be upset. It would be like starving all the beef cattle in order to have the pleasure of eating the pasture grass they live on.
Fish Protein Concentrate
Scientists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego are also worrying about the over fishing of certain species. Although convinced that the ocean harvest could be increased, they know that commercial fish sources could be "overkilled," resulting in their total depletion. For example, Scripps studies of the anchovy off Peru revealed that fishing there had reached its maximum. A major increase in exploitation would hurt and eventually devastate the fish stocks. It is obvious that any great increase in the world's fish harvest would mean going after fish not now being exploited. But even this would not be a breakthrough for the world's hungry. There would still be problems of storage and transportation — distribution, rapid spoilage, processing costs, and the eating habits of the consumers. The need for a ready-made substance that will not become rancid over long periods of storage has caused the development of fish protein concentrate (FPC). It would be a sort of protein food supplement. Scientists estimate that this concentrate would be produced in almost unlimited quantities. This is because any kind of fish can be used. The whole animal — head, viscera, scales and all — is ground up, dried and run through a chemical and electrical processor. But the FPC is not without its problems. The final product is a tasteless, odorless, bacteria-free white powder. And, the idea of eating fish flour made from just any type of whole fish, heads, entrails and all — even diseased, contaminated fish — is repulsive to many people. As far as the developers are concerned, the FPC concentrate is not harmful. But they realize its acceptance as a food item in the developed nations may be a long time in coming. Even in undernourished countries there is a problem of consumer acceptance — especially where seafood is regarded as a religious taboo — to the extent people would rather starve than eat it. Another problem is economic feasibility. Gordon C. Broadhead, president of Living Marine Resources, Inc. in San Diego, told us: "Companies have gone broke on 'in-the-sea' programs with FPC. There simply is no market for it. After all, who in the United States wants to eat food made from a concentrate of fish parts? Especially when steak is available on supermarket shelves." If FPC is to be distributed widely abroad, someone must undertake the cost of producing it. Surely the poverty- stricken hungry who need food cannot afford it. And why have to exist on the protein from FPC? Steaks taste a whole lot better. Besides, the problem of fish availability still remains! After all, FPC depends on a fish supply. Would the ocean be able continually to supply more and more fish for the continued production of FPC in unlimited quantities in order to feed a continually growing world population?
Other Would-Be Schemes
There are yet other proposals to increase fish production. Some ideas involve stimulating the natural food chain processes in the sea. This would mean increasing the ocean's fertile areas. The analogy of spreading unnatural fertilizers on farm lands is seen in this concept. It would mean "forcing" the seas as man has forced his farmlands. It has been speculated that man could stimulate sea plant and animal growth by "fertilizing" the sea. However, John D. H. Strickland, a biologist of the Institute of Marine Resources, University of California, La Jolla, explained that even if all the nitrogen fertilizer in the world were dumped into the ocean, it would improve the fertility of plant and animal life in an area no bigger than the North Sea. That small area could not possibly produce enough fish to justify such a great expenditure on fertilizer. It merely underscores what experts at an international conference at Moscow pointed out: Even with the advances of science and technology today, food resources of the ocean still appear to be strictly limited. But, even the ocean food resources available now are at the mercy of overfishing practices AND — to the great alarm of oceanographers — the new threat of increasing POLLUTION.
A Threat to Estuaries
It is the estuaries along the coasts of the world that are hardest hit by pollution. And, it is the estuaries that provide spawning grounds, nursing grounds, feeding grounds, and a place to live for most of our commercial fisheries. Take a look at what is happening to our fish resources as a result of pollution. Lead from auto exhausts rains into the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans. According to Dr. Clair Patterson of the California Institute of Technology, this lead fallout could ultimately subvert the ocean's mineral balance and foster lead poisoning Increasing oil pollution is threatening life not only at sea but also along our coasts, and IS killing fish and waterfowl. DDT residues have been found in the fat and liver of penguins and seals as far away as the Antarctic! The continuous recycling and concentrating of pesticides in the ocean's food chains is posing a serious danger to our commercial fish stocks. Technological developments on land have accelerated the flow of metallic pollutants such as mercury into our waters. Mercury contamination has been described as a "very serious, potentially catastrophic threat" to the environment. Now, the dumping of radioactive materials into rivers and seas is creating a potential hazard for the future.
Can Our Oceans Feed the World?
Instead of nearing a breakthrough in food extraction from the ocean, man is increasingly polluting, tampering with and threatening to destroy the very life that exists in it! Despite all the proposals once made to use the ocean's food resources to save mankind, many marine biologists are not too optimistic of the chances. When we interviewed scientists and biologists in leading oceanographic institutions of Southern California, they all admitted that food from the oceans would never be the final answer to the hungry cries of starving millions. It is high time we quit overexploiting both the oceans and our farmlands to make up for other problems man has not solved. Overexploitation, for example, will not solve the burgeoning population problem. Only people can solve that problem. Overexploitation of our resources will not solve the congestion of our population in sick, overcrowded cities. Only a change in the physical structure of our society will do that. Overexploitation of ocean food supplies will not solve the problem of depleted, wrecked, sick soil. Only a new type of agriculture that gives careful attention to building up the land for sustained high-quality abundance will supply the food humanity needs.