Scanning the skies, astronomers have discovered over 500 extrasolar planets, yet so far the hunt for signs of water on these planets – a prerequisite for the existence of life – have met with little success.
Renowned scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have urged further efforts on these searches, arguing that human population growth, together with deterioration of the biosphere with global change, mean another habitable planet may be required in the future.
By 2050, the human population will reach about nine billion – the median of estimates of the Earth’s capacity to feed ourselves, based on current sufficient freshwater and arable land.
But there is another option to colonising outer space, and that is further exploration – and better utilisation – of our ocean resources.
Since Earth is mostly covered by water, how did water supply become known as the bottleneck for human population on Earth? The conundrum emerges because humans stubbornly insist on using water resources in the continents where they are most scarce, and have largely ignored the potential of the oceans to deliver resources.
While we harnessed the potential to control food production on the land about 10,000 years ago, through agriculture and livestock ranging, we still exploit the oceans predominantly as hunters-gatherers.
We have also failed to explore the marine realm’s vast space: just 10% of marine species have been named and at the current rate of discovery and it will take an astounding 200 to 1,000 years to complete an inventory of marine biodiversity.
We have a better knowledge of the topography of the surface of the Moon and Mars than we have of that of our undersea bathymetry.
Yet, our relationship with the ocean is rapidly changing. Marine aquaculture is emerging as a fast-growing sector, with growth rates of 8% per year and the capacity to sustain these growth rates over decades. Aquaculture already delivers 30% of all marine food production and 50% of all fish production, whereas fisheries reached a maximum yield 20 years ago, and the current levels of pressure on wild fish stocks are, in general, not sustainable.
The key attribute of marine aquaculture is that it is the only sector of food production that does not consume freshwater resources or arable land. Hence, the development of marine aquaculture has the potential to deliver the growth in food production to feed a growing human population above the ceilings imposed by freshwater supply and arable land. It can only do so, however, if marine aquaculture is developed sustainably, which requires closing the food production cycle to render aquaculture independent of wild fisheries, whose resources are currently used in fish feed manufacturing.
Aquaculture has the capacity to yield environmental benefits, help overfished stocks to recover and use macroalgal farms to improve water quality. It can help alleviate low-oxygen waters, increase marine biodiversity and mitigate climate change through the production of sustainable biofuels.
The ocean can sustainably deliver other limiting resources – including water itself – as desalination technology spreads and becomes more efficient. Soon the global value of desalination will exceed that of fisheries.
Whereas desalination is an energy-intensive industry, the ocean can also deliver large amounts of untapped renewal energy through marine aeolian (wind) energy, wave energy, tidal energy and marine geothermal energy.
In this biotech era, marine biota can be used not only as food, but as sources of genes, particularly of microbial origin, with important biotechnological applications. Indeed, over 5,000 genes and 20,000 natural products from marine organisms have been patented with important applications in food, energy, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and biomedical industries.
This is an ongoing, but largely unrealised revolution in the 21st century: the development of our capacity to harness the ocean potential to deliver critical resources. The challenge is to develop this potential in a sustainable way, overcoming the many pressures that threaten the marine ecosystem, and delivering benefits for all, not just the more technological advanced nations.
Harnessing this potential requires that research in marine sciences and technology be aligned with an entrepreneurial industry and government to deliver the solutions the ocean has the potential to yield, which is something the UWA Oceans Institute, established by the University of Western Australia in 2010, aims to do. Developing these solutions offer huge opportunities for innovation and a competitive advantage for those entering this arena at an early stage.
Australia, a maritime nation with more territory in the ocean than on land, and an economy already deeply rooted in its ocean through fisheries, oil and gas and tourism, has the potential to lead the world in the development of sustainable ocean resources in this, our last frontier.