Solutions News  Radio   KZSB 1290AM

May 31, 2019 - Guest: Dr. Brian von Herzen

Topics: Microbial Engines, Fish Friendly Rigs, Health Benefits of Seaweed

Show Details

On this episode of Solutions News, we welcome Dr. Brian von Herzen, the Executive Director of the Climate Foundation, who’ll be talking with us about marine permaculture and some amazing things he’s developing to help the world.  Our topics today are focused on the ocean: first a story about how bacterial microbes “eat” carbon dioxide all while providing a food source for fish and cleaning up industrial waste in the meantime, and another about how man-made artifacts in the oceans are being turned into marine habitats where life is thriving!  Later on, we have some great didyaknows, and a final story on some health benefits of eating ocean greens. 

Microbial Engines

The oceans are a carbon sink; they absorb 25% of all of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.  This is in large part because of the bacteria that live in the sea.  Many of these bacteria live in the deep sea, where they take in carbon dioxide and serve as the base of an ecosystem for higher level predators.  A recent study of these deep-sea bacteria in Pacific Ocean extrapolated to find that worldwide, the deep sea ecosystems accounts for 200 million tonnes of CO2 being turned into biomass each year.  That is 10% of the total carbon dioxide removed by the ocean, meaning that these bacteria have serious potential.  And this is only one aspect of a new field - dubbed Synthetic Biology, or “Synbio” - that uses a suite of techniques to manipulate living microbial cells and turn them, in effect, into tiny factories--factories for fuels, fabrics, fish food, you name it. It's the redesigning of a microorganism to make it functional.

For example, NovoNutrients, is a company developing a product called Novomeal as a high-protein replacement for the fish meal typically used to feed fish for aquaculture.  It’s made from bacteria that thrive by eating CO2, and turning it into proteins.  The bacteria are mass produced in a bioreactor that is saturated with extra carbon dioxide, some starch, and the other perfect conditions for growth.  In addition to CO2, the bacteria can also break down other toxic chemicals spewed out by oil refineries or coal power plants.  And as long as they have CO2 or another toxin to feed on, they keep reproducing and become an indefinitely sustainable food source.  And since they are so tiny, don’t have limbs, skeletons or brains to incubate, they reproduce much faster, and at a much lower level of the food chain than an animal or plant ever could.

The bacteria themselves release proteins and along with other single-celled organisms, are ground into a fish powder and then can be used to feed aquaculture fish.  Currently, the food for carnivorous fish like salmon, tuna, sea bass, or trout, is made by grinding up other smaller fish, called forage fish, like anchovies, herrings, and menhadens.  While these fish are relatively low on the food chain, it’s extremely wasteful because it requires huge amounts of the smaller fish- more than that the natural environment is made to sustain.  It’s also increasingly expensive as fish populations decline all over the world.

Currently, feeding is the largest cost in the fish farming industry.  The price of the protein based fish meal has more than quintupled since 1995.  As a result, Novomeal actually has the potential to fundamentally change the $332 billion farmed fish and aquaculture industry to make it completely sustainable.  

Since the bacteria replicate themselves and rely on carbon dioxide and other industrial waste products (which we have more than enough of), healthy fish can be produced without the use of GMOs and humanity can stop overfishing the oceans.

Fish Friendly Housing: Sunken Ships and Retired Rigs

The second story this week is a spotlight on how nature changes and adapts based on human interaction with the environment. On our May 10th show, we had a "didyaknow" about tiger sand sharks that have continued to return to shipwrecks near North Carolina.  

Scientists call this phenomenon, where animals return regularly return to the same habitat, site fidelity.  Newly published research in the journal Ecology documents the same group of six female sand tiger sharks returning to the same shipwrecks year after year.  While this is an interesting fact, it raises the more broad question about animal adaptation to human structures.  

The sharks and the shipwrecks add to a growing body of evidence that these wrecks and other man-made artifacts are very special and important habitats for a diversity of marine life, including top predators like the sand tiger shark.  These shipwrecks off the coast of North Carolina are critical habitats and some argue they must be protected to sustain the local ecology.  The same is true for other structures that have developed a niche environment for marine life.

Take offshore natural gas and oil platforms for example.  In the Gulf of Mexico alone, there are over 7,000 oil and natural gas platforms.  Because they are built for long term use, over time they too have become an important marine habitats.  The Coastal Marine Institute found that a typical eight-leg structure provides a home for 12,000 to14,000 fish.  

While many rightly believe that production from these platforms must be shut down for both the danger they pose and the polluting fossil fuels they produce, let’s take a minute to consider how this is actually done.  

The typical process involves a full decommissioning of the site and a complete removal of all equipment.  Besides a complete removal, “reefing” is an option that takes the marine environment into consideration by keeping much of the existing structure in place.  This is also significantly less expensive.  

There are three ways reefing can be done.

  1. Tow-and-place involves severing the structure from the sea floor either using explosives or mechanical cutting techniques and then towing it to the selected reef for deployment.
  2. Topple-in-place also detaches the structure from the seabed. The detached structure is then toppled onto its side.
  3. Partial removal generally does not use explosives. The top portion of the structure is severed at a permitted navigational depth, typically 85 feet deep, and placed on the sea floor next to the base of the remaining structure.

Of the three options, the third is by far the least detrimental to this new marine environment that has been created, while also ending the possibility of damage caused by fossil fuels.  Moreover, leaving part of the platform creates infrastructure so that the closed well can be monitored for leaks.

This topic is also being heavily debated here in Santa Barbara because there are six oil platforms scheduled to be retired and potentially removed.  As the debate continues, it is important to consider the options and what is best for the marine environments that rely on the shelter the platforms provide.  

Health Benefits of Seaweed

A few weeks ago we had a "didyaknow" about how farms are changing cows’ diets to reduce “Methane Burps” - just by swapping out 1% of a cow’s diet with seaweed, it  reduces methane emissions by 60%, 70%, and by some reports up to 90%!   

But didyaknow, that seaweed can be great for people too?  For our last story today, we wanted to list some amazing Health Benefits that come from Adding Seaweed to your Diet.

First, A few seaweed facts: 

Seaweed or sea vegetables are forms of algae that grow in the sea.  They’re a food source for ocean life and range in color from red to green to brown to black.  Seaweed grows along rocky shorelines around the world, but it’s most commonly eaten in Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and China. What’s more, seaweed is highly nutritious, so a little goes a long way.

Here are a few of the documented health benefits of seaweed.

  1. SEAWEED Contains iodine and tyrosine, which support thyroid function.
  2. SEAWEED is a Good source of vitamins and minerals AND, unlike land plants, seaweed contains preformed omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, so seaweed or algae oil can be a reliable source of omega-3 for vegetarians.
  3. SEAWEED Contains a variety of protective antioxidants
  4. SEAWEED Provides fiber and polysaccharides that can support gut health.
  5. SEAWEED May reduce heart disease risk, risk of type 2 diabetes, and risk of cancer. 

Platform Holly in California’s Santa Barbara Channel (via AP)
Platform Holly in California’s Santa Barbara Channel (via AP)

Dr. Brian von Herzen

Dr. Brian von Herzen obtained degrees in physics, engineering and planetary science from Princeton and Caltech, respectively, where he was a Hertz Fellow. At Princeton, Brian worked closely with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). His dissertation on global climate models validated orbital variation effects on climate. At Caltech, Brian worked on the overabundance of carbon in Jupiter's atmosphere. Little did he know that a decade later we would be addressing this very problem for the Earth. By restoring natural carbon cycles, we can restore food productivity of Earth while concurrently balancing carbon.

Brian serves as Executive Director of the Climate Foundation and leads projects on land and sea with research groups in India, Africa, USA and the Pacific Ocean. Over the last decade, Brian has developed Marine Permaculture to restore fish productivity in subtropical oceans, to ensure economically and ecologically sustainable food security. Brian has been conducting research in Woods Hole regarding autonomous guidance of Marine Permaculture arrays. He also researched, developed and commercialized biochar reactors for sanitation that produce biochar (organic charcoal for agricultural purposes) which holds carbon in the soil for thousands of years. 


Today’s warmer surface waters limit natural overturning circulation and vertical mixing by increasing density stratification in the upper ocean, particularly in the subtropics, reducing available nutrients for algae, fish habitat and forage fish upon which other fish depend. Warmer, more stratified oceans require new approaches to managing marine ecosystems. In order to increase food security, bolster marine ecosystems and export blue carbon, infrastructure associated with Marine Permaculture (MP) restores overturning circulation locally, thereby regenerating key ecosystem services supporting seaweed forests. Cooler, nutrient-rich water from the deep provides favorable conditions for seaweed growth and thereby regenerates habitat and food at sea for forage fish.

Currently, the Climate Foundation is deploying a Phase 2 Marine Permaculture in the Indian Ocean to validate benefits to seaweed mariculture and to demonstrate the biological response of commercially relevant macroalgae to deep water upwelled to the surface. This is a key step in developing scaled MPs, which enable larger offshore open-ocean seaweed cultivation that use the vertical shear of mesoscale eddies for maneuvering. Renewable energy sources provide the power needed for seaweed irrigation and guidance, enabling cultivation across subtropical oceans, eliminating the limitations of nearshore cultivation. We plan to operate MPs as ocean-going vessels under Admiralty Law, with its 500 years of precedent, or alternatively under regulations for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles. Regulations for vessels tend to be much faster to meet than zoning and permitting fixed sites, enabling us to accelerate permitting relative to California coastal conventions.

Dr. Brian von Herzen, our guest on May 31, 2019
Dr. Brian von Herzen, our guest on May 31, 2019