This Ocean Farmer Grows Food That Cleans up Pollution
By Marlene Cimons
Catherine Puckett needs to be close to the ocean. "I just can't be away from it," she said. "It means everything to me." She has to see it and smell it and hear the bells that ring from buoys offshore when a heavy sea rolls in from the east. When she is waist-deep in water, ankle-deep in mud, salt marsh on one side and water on the other, there's only one way she can describe it. "It's magical," she said. She even wades in during the coldest days of winter, often breaking through ice to get there. "I think to myself: 'why doesn't everybody do this?'" she said.
Puckett, 36, known locally as "Oyster Wench," a single mother with two young children, lives on Block Island, about a dozen miles off the Rhode Island coast. She represents a new generation of ocean farmers, one whose singular connection to the water is coupled with a passion for the environment. She grows shellfish and kelp on her farm, located in the waters of the Great Salt Pond, using sustainable fishing methods that both preserve the ocean's ecosystems and fight climate change.
"What we are trying to do is grow food from the ocean that doesn't hurt the environment or the climate and, in fact, is working toward restoring both," she said.
Catherine Puckett harvesting kelp with fellow ocean farmers Charley Gale, Jon Grant, Kerri Gaffett and Dale Taylor
Source: Catherine Puckett
She is one of a growing number of ocean farmers engaged in 3D farming, cultivating her crops vertically in straight up-and-down water columns, using no fertilizers, freshwater or feed. Puckett's clams are buried and covered with nets to protect them from predators, while her oysters grow in bags. Her kelp develops on lines.
The operation helps cut down on pollution in numerous ways. The shellfish help filter pollutants from the water. They also offer a source of protein to diners, who might otherwise eat beef, which is made from cows who burp and fart methane, a potent heat-trapping gas. For those who can't give up their beef, ocean farming can help. Research shows that when cows eat a little seaweed, they produce less methane.
Seaweed also soaks up carbon and nitrogen, two pollutants lingering in the water. Carbon released by cars, trucks, factories and power plants is entering the ocean, turning waters more acidic. Nitrogen fertilizer used on farms is making its way into rivers and then to the ocean, creating dead zones. Seaweed cleans up both. If ocean farmers devoted a little less than 5 percent of U.S. waters to growing seaweed, they could clean up an estimated 135 million tons of carbon and 10 million tons of nitrogen, according to a report from the World Bank.
Catherine Puckett harvesting with fellow ocean farmers Charley Gale, Hunter Barto and Jon Grant
Source: Catherine Puckett
Puckett sells most of what she produces to a Maine food processor, and the remainder to land farmers who use it to fertilize their vegetables. "The kelp is sequestering carbon and nitrogen, so by selling it to the farmers as fertilizer, we are closing the loop," she said. "We are making the circle complete." She also keeps some for herself. She uses it in salads, as a substitute for spinach, and as a pizza topping. She also dries it, then bakes chips. "Those never make it out of the kitchen," she said.
Puckett developed her operation with the help of GreenWave, a nonprofit helping aspiring growers get into vertical farming. Bren Smith, a former commercial fisherman, founded the organization after seeing the global fishing industry was decimating wild fish. He developed his vertical farming system off the shores of the Long Island Sound in Connecticut. It's now being used by growers in New York, southern New England, California, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
"We have requests to start farms in every coastal state in North America and from 20 countries," said Smith, author of a new book, Eat Like a Fish. "People come from all walks of life. They are shell fishers, like Catherine, who are looking to diversify, former fishermen who want to transition, land-based farmers who want to leave the land, and indigenous people who want to revive their traditions and be on the forefront of climate farming."
He believes his model could ease overfishing, which threatens the extinction of many fish species. "We have to reimagine the seafood dinner plate and move wild fish to the edges, and put shellfish and seaweed to the center," Smith said. "Because what we grow has zero inputs, our food will be the most affordable food on the planet."
Catherine Puckett holds a bunch of kelp on her boat.
Source: Kerri Gaffett
Puckett shares this vision. After spending childhood summers on Block Island, she later decided to stay and fish. She started by working for the Block Island Shellfish Farm, then bought it five years ago. She's the only woman on the island running an ocean farm, and her bright teal and pink boat — still unnamed — is a standout.
"My kids wanted me to paint it rainbow and sparkle, but I said how about pink?" she said, laughing. "I wanted to make a statement that it was a 'girl' boat. There are a couple of guys here who help me with the kelp harvest who tease me — that they have to go out on a girl boat — but they are OK with that. Actually, the men here have known me for a long time, and have seen me go through my growing pains, and have helped me so much."
Puckett started with quahog clams, and then added scallops and oysters. She had long wanted to grow seaweed, but didn't know where to start. Another oyster farmer told her about GreenWave's Farmer-in-Training program, which taught her how to use the 3D model, then gave her free kelp seed for her first harvest. She now farms a one-acre shellfish site, and — in deeper waters — a two-acre kelp site, both leased from the state. Her kelp "grew like crazy," she said. "It was mind-blowing."
The Block Island wind farm, the first commercial offshore wind farm in the U.S.
Puckett is happy that her work is curbing pollution, and she is proud that Block Island is the site of America's first offshore wind farm, which began operating in 2016 and has boosted tourism to the island, according to a recent study. Puckett eyes the turbines as future anchors to grow her seaweed. Smith thinks it's a great idea. "Why just harvest wind, when we can do food and fertilizer in the same space?" he said.
Smith wants to replicate Puckett's success elsewhere. "Imagine the impact if we scaled this model globally. The possibilities are limitless," he said. He envisions 50 small scale farms, each with a seafood hub and hatchery on shore, and a ring of entrepreneurs to develop markets for the products.
"We want to have 100,000 Catherine Pucketts worldwide," he said. "Amazingly, the people coming to this industry are not grizzled fishermen like me — we have plenty of those — the majority are women. This means women could be the architects of the blue economy. That is a very exciting prospect."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.
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History Reverberates on Native Lands<p>Native communities in North America have been disrupted and displaced for centuries. Many face long-standing food and water <a href="http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/DocServer/2017-PWNA-NPRA-Food-Insecurity-Project-Grow.pdf?docID=7106" target="_blank">inequities</a> that are further complicated by this pandemic.</p><p>On the Navajo reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, 76% of households already <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235390130_High_levels_of_household_food_insecurity_on_the_Navajo_Nation" target="_blank">have trouble affording enough healthy food</a>, and the nearest grocery store is often hours away. COVID-related restrictions have further curtailed access to food supplies.</p><p>Clean water for basic sanitary measures like hand-washing is also scarce. Native Americans are <a href="http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/Closing%20the%20Water%20Access%20Gap%20in%20the%20United%20States_DIGITAL.pdf" target="_blank">19 times more likely</a> to lack indoor plumbing than whites in the U.S. Nearly one-third of Navajo households <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hits-indian-country-hard-exposing-infrastructure-disparities-n1186976" target="_blank">lack access to running water</a>.</p><p>Many <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e3.htm" target="_blank">health issues</a> that can increase COVID-19 mortality rates occur at high levels among Native Americans. These <a href="http://www.ncai.org/news/articles/2020/03/18/the-national-congress-of-american-indians-calls-for-more-attention-to-covid-19-impacts-to-indian-country" target="_blank">underlying</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30893-X" target="_blank">preexisting</a> conditions – things like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e2.htm" target="_blank">linked to diet</a> and stem from <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank">disruption and replacement</a> of Indigenous food systems.</p>
High Exposure Rates<p>These factors have clear health impacts. On the Navajo reservation, for instance, through May 27, 2020, <a href="https://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2020/May/FOR%20IMMEDIATE%20RELEASE%20-%201620%20recoveries_102%20new%20cases%20of%20COVID-19_and%20one%20more%20death%20reported.pdf" target="_blank">4,944 people</a> out of a population of 173,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and 159 had died.</p><p>This infection rate per capita exceeds those in hot spots such as <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/05/19/navajo-nation-has-most-coronavirus-infections-per-capita-in-us-beating-new-york-new-jersey/#11a4fac08b10" target="_blank">New York and New Jersey</a>. Importantly, however, it may also reflect a much <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/04/19/navajo-nation-has-higher/" target="_blank">more proactive approach to testing</a> on reservations than in many other jurisdictions.</p><p>The fact that elderly people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 could worsen the pandemic's effects in Indian Country. Elders are the <a href="https://ais.washington.edu/research/publications/spirits-our-whaling-ancestors" target="_blank">keepers of traditional knowledge, tribal languages and culture</a> – legacies whose loss already threatens the persistence of indigenous communities.</p><p>Elders also play key roles in preserving traditional plant and medicine knowledge. In the absence of COVID-19 interventions from Western medicine, many elders have been called on to perform healing practices, which increases their exposure risk.</p>
Little Help From Federal and State Governments<p>Many tribal members rely on the federal government's <a href="https://www.ihs.gov/" target="_blank">Indian Health Service</a> for health care. But <a href="https://theconversation.com/tribal-leaders-face-great-need-and-dont-have-enough-resources-to-respond-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic-134372" target="_blank">lack of capacity</a> at the agency has hampered its response. Budget shortfalls, <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/report-grossly-inaccurate-data-used-to-divvy-up-relief-funds-for-tribes-9qkkHmeXj0uhRC42mXYqCA" target="_blank">inaccurate data</a>, the challenges of providing <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/coronavirus-risk-is-compounded-by-the-rural-DC-rMTUzzE6WDGee8jbENQ" target="_blank">rural health care</a> and ongoing personnel shortages in IHS clinics are compounded by staff being <a href="https://navajotimes.com/reznews/dikos-ntsaaigii-doodaa-nation-musters-defense-against-covid-19/" target="_blank">pulled away</a> to fight the virus in large cities.</p><p>And while many states have raised frustrations with the Trump administration's unwillingness to distribute protective supplies from the <a href="https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/3/21206170/us-emergency-stockpile-jared-kushner-almost-empty-coronavirus-medical-supplies-ventilators" target="_blank">dwindling national stockpile</a>, IHS and tribal health care authorities <a href="https://www.azpm.org/p/home-articles-news/2020/3/17/167874-bill-calls-for-more-tribal-community-access-to-federal-stockpile-of-medical-supplies/" target="_blank">never had access</a> to the stockpile at all.</p><p>Although the federal government has begun <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/05/22/hhs-announces-500-million-distribution-to-tribal-hospitals-clinics-and-urban-health-centers.html" target="_blank">distributing relief funds</a> to IHS agencies, there have been serious problems with the accompanying supplies. The Navajo Nation has received <a href="https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/05/22/propublica-former-trump-aide-provided-fa.asp" target="_blank">faulty masks</a>, and a Seattle Native health center asked for tests but <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/native-american-health-center-asked-covid-19-supplies-they-got-n1200246" target="_blank">received body bags instead</a>.</p><p>Meanwhile, federally imposed limits on tribal sovereignty have obstructed tribal governments' efforts to deal with the pandemic themselves. Federal and state governments are <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/makah-tribe-fights-coronavirus-with-self-reliance-and-extreme-isolation/" target="_blank">challenging tribes' jurisdictional authority</a> to <a href="https://www.azfamily.com/news/mayor-of-page-accused-of-racist-social-media-comment-toward-navajo-nation-president/article_e2e6efd6-8db4-11ea-a8a2-7f6976d702f6.html" target="_blank">close borders to tourists</a> who may carry the virus. South Dakota's governor has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/14/sioux-coronavirus-roadblocks-south-dakota-governor" target="_blank">threatened legal action</a> against two tribes who set up checkpoints to monitor incoming traffic on their reservations.</p>
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Environmental Injustices on Native Land<p>Energy development and resource extraction have had <a href="https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/898-all-our-relations" target="_blank">disproportionate impacts</a> on tribes for many years. Today, many Native American leaders worry that ongoing energy production – <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/covid-19-essential-workers-in-the-states.aspx" target="_blank">an "essential" activity under federal guidelines</a> will bring outsiders into close contact with reservation communities, worsening COVID risks.</p><p>The owners of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have announced that they intend to continue construction, which will bring an influx of workers along the proposed route through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana have filed for a <a href="https://www.narf.org/keystone-xl/" target="_blank">temporary restraining order</a>, and a key permit for the pipeline was <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/16/headlines/us_judge_revokes_crucial_permit_for_keystone_xl_pipeline" target="_blank">revoked in April 2020</a>, but work continues at the U.S.-Canada border.</p><p>Construction is accelerating on the <a href="https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2020/03/17/border-patrol-waives-laws-border-wall-construction-southern-arizona/5063618002/" target="_blank">southern border wall</a>, which bisects the <a href="http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/" target="_blank">Tohono O'odham reservation</a> in Arizona and Mexico. The Trump administration has <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/border-coronavirus-military-immigration/" target="_blank">increased patrols at the border</a>, despite the tribe's concern that the patrols' presence is <a href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/06/coronavirus-cbp-160-cases-covid-19-officers-agents/2958736001/" target="_blank">spreading coronavirus</a> on the reservation.</p><p>And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a salmon fishing season that brings in thousands of temporary workers is <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/it-s-hard-when-you-love-something-xlS49l2N20KZjqumwfzZfQ" target="_blank">set to open in June</a> because the federal government has also deemed commercial fishing "<a href="https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/CISA-Guidance-on-Essential-Critical-Infrastructure-Workers-1-20-508c.pdf" target="_blank">essential critical infrastructure</a>." Many local Native villages depend on the fishery for income, but have nonetheless pleaded with state regulators to <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/urgent-calls-to-close-the-massive-bristol-bay-fishery-8lYsGkUeDUyCBW7FMwpSfA?fbclid=IwAR1710u4rQnriq_MgH2ueQxOFtfGiGiH8I2ZdJRCZS9f28Zl-JNkPLpnzZo" target="_blank">cancel the season</a>. The regional hospital has just four beds for possible COVID-19 patients.</p>
Bold Action in Native Communities<p>Native communities are taking decisive action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They're imposing aggressive <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-navajo-nation.html" target="_blank">quarantine</a> measures like lockdowns, curfews and border closures. Communities are <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/18/covidcoronavirus-native-american-lummi-nation-trailblazing-steps" target="_blank">ramping up health care capacity</a> and elder support services, and banishing nontribal members who <a href="https://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/oglala-sioux-council-banishes-non-member-with-covid-19-from-reservation/article_60b665c3-9d1b-5d48-a576-51774e4fb41a.html" target="_blank">violate travel restrictions</a>.</p><p>Other strategies include helping hunters <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/ammo-fuel-for-hunters-to-feed-others-Ki3zK6du-ky-UogoB9-aNQ" target="_blank">provide traditional foods</a> to their communities, <a href="https://ndncollective.org/indigenizing-and-decolonizing-community-care-in-response-to-covid-19/" target="_blank">mobilizing to support tribal health care workers</a>, and <a href="https://www.ehn.org/coronavirus-native-americans-2645923635.html" target="_blank">linking the pandemic and the climate crisis</a>. Looking ahead to a post-COVID future, we believe one priority should be attending to <a href="http://www.beacon.org/As-Long-as-Grass-Grows-P1445.aspx" target="_blank">front-line environmental justice struggles</a> that center tribes' sovereignty to act on their own behalf at all times, not just during national crises.</p>
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By Kaya Bulbul
The ocean is our lifeline - we rely on it for the food we eat, the air we breathe, as well as for millions for jobs worldwide.
As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations, many of which unidentified or insufficiently supported.
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