In 2016, no challenge is more awesome, or less understood, than the conservation of our oceans, and the value oceans provide to food security and other resources for humanity.Transforming conservation through novel approaches that dramatically improve the efficacy, speed, cost, and scale of solutions is a major goal for governments, institutions and citizens alike.  

This past November, Conservation X Labs, a technology firm focused on conservation’s grand challenges, in collaboration with SecondMuse and the World Wildlife Fund, hosted the inaugural Oceans Conservation ‘Big Think’ at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography. Reporter Maya Trabulsi caught up with Lisa Rauter, First Assistant Secretary at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s InnovationXchange. Rauter says Australia is surrounded by island states and that’s where the majority of their aid program goes. She sees a future in cross-disciplinary thinking and development of aquaculture. She also thinks it’s important to bring jobs to Australia’s surrounding island states that rely on the ocean for their income. 

Why are cross-disciplinary views important in these conversations?

It’s really fantastic to be part of this conversation because what’s happening is you’re getting a really broad array of views –commercial, biological science– you’re getting a wealth of experience and research all coming to ask “what truly is the problem we’re facing? What are the similarities and the interplays between those challenges? How can we actually go about starting to solve those, thinking big first, then coming back to what might be some practical steps towards that?” We’re here to be part of that conversation. It’s really important for us to think globally and not from one direction, so we’re getting access to an amazing room of experience.  

Photo by Alex Dehgan
Photo by Alex Dehgan

What are the top challenges leaders are addressing today?

We’ve already launched a challenge in this area, aquaculture. How do you actually help meet the world’s food needs in a nutritional valued way using our oceans? We’re relying on our landmass for most of our food sources at the moment, but it’s not sustainable, so how do we use our oceans? I think we get two percent of our food from 70 percent of our world mass, so how can we use that much more efficiently?  

At the same time, we want to do it in a way that’s going to help ocean health and help that be a sustainable food source. For me that’s most important, and I think if you can create a superior product coming out of aquaculture, you help address things like over-fishing. You can hopefully address the few of the challenges in one, so that’s where we’re focusing.  

I think doing things that actually protect the health of the oceans and the marine ecology is also important, mostly because of the carbon that’s in our air and the fact that a lot of it is being subsumed by the ocean, and keeping that a healthy source given the extent that it covers our planet.

What is it going to take to solve these issues and what would be markers for success?

We need at least some pathways toward solving the issues, and some conversations that we can continue with. You’re not going to solve these things with one day despite the brain power that’s in the room, but what we are going to do is actually have some conversations we can keep going, and hopefully some new partnerships. Like I said, we’ve launched an aquaculture challenge, and what we’re hoping is there are some people in the room that can help us make that a much bigger success than what we could have on our own.

Markers for success would be that we’re increasing food productivity and nutrition, and we’re actually creating job opportunities for people that are living in developing countries that are ocean states that use and rely on the ocean for their income. I think there’s lots of opportunity there and we’re certainly focused on the poverty elements from the Australian aid program’s perspective.  

What technologies that exist now or are on the horizon would have the biggest impact on changing our oceans?

At least part of it is about how do we feed fish– how do we not use wild fish to grow fish, and I think from that perspective, there’s already a lot of work happening. I know even Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization has patented a feed that we could use in aquaculture, so I think taking those things to scale is going to be really important.

Another technology to develop is the way we use satellites and other technology to monitor and tell us what’s going on in the oceans, one of the most untracked and unknown environments in the world. So, using those technologies to understand what’s going on and then working out where the problems are the biggest and where we should be investing our time and money.  

The Big Think is a high level meeting to re-imagine how to address the challenges threatening our oceans and the people who surround them, while meeting the demands of the next generation. This was the first step in a new initiative designed to generate novel innovations to address complex conservation challenges in the oceans through revolutionary advances rather than evolutionary ones. The Blue Economy Aquaculture Challenge is led by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Conservation X Labs, and SecondMuse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Photos by Alex Dehgan of Conservation X Labs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *