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  • Susan Hand Shetterly

Seaweeds and the Future

The oceans’ living webs are fragile and complex. We don’t know everything about them, but we know enough to understand the urgency of protecting what’s left, including coral reefs and seaweed jungles.


Seaweeds have benefited humans in important ways for hundreds and hundreds of years. Today we find more uses for them than ever before. They have given us food, pharmaceuticals, garden compost, feed for domestic animals, and so much more. Now scientists are working on designing enormous platforms for growing kelp to turn into biofuels, as well as figuring out how to incorporate seaweed as an ingredient in food for pen-raised salmon, which could stop the use of wild fish as feed.


At the same time, scientists such as E.O.Wilson and Elliott Norse and others teach us that vast areas of the oceans, inshore and off, need to be set aside completely, not partially, as conserved wild places to replenish what we’ve lost, and as sanctuaries for species to evolve strategies, if they can, to cope with the changing climate.


Seaweeds are life-sustaining jungles of the inshore, and in deep water, where high ridges rise to sunlight, seaweeds thrive, creating rich habitat. The Sargasso Sea, a spongy floating archipelago of free-floating Sargassum, hosts and nourishes thousands of wild lives.


Seaweeds sequester carbon, as do trees. They absorb toxins, cleaning up polluted harbors. But they also take in phosphorus and nitrogen, and respond to these amendments with growth spurts, which can overwhelm beaches and clog bays. If we stop dumping the pollutants that cause these spurts into the oceans, the seaweed pileups will diminish. But the warming water will always encourage the abundance of some species of seaweeds as it inhibits the abilities of others to survive.


To change the way we behave toward wild land and wild water is a revolutionary act. The way we initiate that change is through public advocacy, as citizens. When communities demand protective practices, scientists and policy administrators listen. As we search for ways to accommodate the critical needs of the Earth and its species, including our own, we can’t plunder the last wild habitats as we go. What this means is we have to rein in what we take today to reestablish resources and reserves for tomorrow.

I hope we can learn to care for our oceans on an international level as vigilantly as citizens in a few small coastal communities around the world have taken it upon themselves to do the hard work of solving the problems they find right in front of them, right in their own home waters. That’s called managing the commons.

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