100 Villages: How Bringing Back the Fish Will Repair the Climate

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Are you pinning your hopes on presidents and prime ministers waking up and saying, "This is an emergency! Here is the plan to repair the climate!" Or perhaps you are dreaming that billionaires and huge corporations will step up to the plate and save us? Well, wake up and smell the bracing coffee because we don’t need to depend on them to make decisive climate progress now. All we need is 100 villages around the world to restore their ocean fisheries, and then we will be on the road to restoring a proven safe climate.

Humans created the problem when their industries put more than 1 trillion tons of extra CO2 into the skies above us. This CO2 overdose has severely damaged the oceans, and has also caused a greenhouse effect that will cook us all very soon if we do not slam into reverse and remove that CO2 back out of the sky.

Trees and gizmo CO2 removal machines alone can’t scale up enough to do the job - and reducing future CO2 emissions does not remove any of the currently existing CO2 peril. But luckily for us, the monumental amount of photosynthesis that happens in the oceans, whereby the CO2 in the atmosphere is transformed into ocean life forms, does have the massive scale to get the job done.

The Oceans' Promise

The key is that photosynthesis. Yes, trees do that, but forests take 50+ years to grow, and we do not have the luxury of 50 years to wait. Trees will help, but it is a huge problem to find the available land space and the trillions of dollars needed for planting them. Fortunately, healthy ocean photosynthesis, with plankton as the main action hero, gets up to speed within a few months, with low start-up costs, and it soon pays for itself by bringing back bounteous amounts of fish.

The problem: Today, ocean photosynthesis is down by as much as 70 percent from its historical norm. The solution: 100 Villages can restore that 70 percent with the method described below. The incentive for villages to do it is to bring back their vanishing fish. Then, as a bonus, that robust replenished ocean photosynthesis will remove enough CO2 to give us a chance to survive.

Is the ocean's power of repair so great that only 100 villages restoring their fisheries can be so effective?

The Foundation for Climate Restoration concludes in a 2019 report that, "Removing enough CO2 to restore the climate could be accomplished with intentional management of just 1-2 percent of the ocean."

We must be careful calculating how much CO2 can be removed, and how fast, because ocean pasture restoration has only recently begun, and getting all 100 villages up and running will take considerable time. But 100 villages can make a huge contribution. 

"The basic arithmetic of climate change is that carbon removal must greatly exceed carbon emissions in order to prevent global warming,” Robert Tulip stated, an expert reviewer for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Only the world ocean has the available area, energy and resources to achieve the required scale of carbon removal, transforming CO2 from waste to asset to establish a circular economy…to enable the exponential growth needed in carbon conversion."

Reversing the Oceans' "Drought"

So, let's examine why ocean photosynthesis is down so far from its historical norm, because therein lies the natural key to this eco-friendly solution.

Historically 90 percent of all photosynthesis on Planet Earth has been going on in our oceans. The Amazon forest is called the "lungs of the planet" because of the big amount of Amazon photosynthesis that transforms CO2 into oxygen. But our oceans have a much bigger lung power because, when healthy, they contain the equivalent of well over 100 Amazon forests - underwater forests that are best thought of as "ocean pastures."

Unfortunately, we have lost much of this climate-saving lung power since the Industrial Revolution, and along with it the disappearance of so many fish from our ocean pastures.

If you were a land farmer, you would look for rainfall to nurture your pastures. But if you want your underwater pastures to thrive, you look for "dustfall." This is because winds scoop up and carry mineral rich dust from land masses and then they blow across the oceans, dropping their nutrition into the ocean pastures. But as humans have caused extra CO2 to accumulate in the skies, the world's dry dusty land masses became significantly grassier, because grass thrives on that extra CO2. More grass has meant less dust ferried in the wind. This has caused a more than 50-year severe drought of dustfall for our ocean pastures. Consequently, we have been losing the ocean pasture equivalent of one entire Amazon forest every five years.

But here is the saving grace: It is easy, safe, cheap and fast to replace that missing dust. Villagers can replenish the dust by going out on their boats and sprinkling the dust in the water, in locations and time periods carefully identified by months of prudent and meticulous scientific preparation.

It doesn't take a lot of materials, only about 100 tons of easily and cheaply obtained mineral dust, and one big boat can do it in a period of about two weeks. If you could walk on water and were dusting your ocean pasture, you'd just toss a single pinch of dust with every three steps to sustain the health of your pasture. And when 100 villages around the world begin dusting, we will start turning the corner on the climate crisis.

It happened successfully already once in 2012. In a village in Canada near Alaska, the local indigenous Haida community was distraught. Their dustfall drought had severe consequences: The People of the Salmon, as the tribes in that region are called, had almost no salmon to their name. But one year after replacing nutrient rich dust into their local ocean pasture, that salmon population came back in record breaking numbers. The processing plants did not have the capacity to handle the bumper crop. And that reinvigorated photosynthesis meant that CO2 was removed from the skies in very significant amounts. 

These booms will last as long as the villages continue to tend their pastures properly, continuing the dusting. It is not a one-shot deal, but it is not difficult to maintain good ocean pasture tending practices.

The central factor in this process is plankton, the base of the ocean food chain. When the nutrients return, the photosynthesis is robust, which results in auspicious blooms of plankton. Suddenly there is no more drought - and there is food, glorious food! Ocean creatures from thousands of miles away hear the underwater heartbeat sound of the plankton booming and blooming (this sound was incidentally recorded by the Haida team's underwater monitors), a grand marine dinner bell, and these hungry creatures enthusiastically swim to the feast.

With the base of the food chain back to its norm, fish of all sizes regain their numbers. The ecology is greatly restored, and the oceans, particularly plankton, demonstrate their ability to stabilize the climate. For not only does the photosynthesis remove CO2, the plankton blooms generate prodigious amounts of highly reflective white clouds, cooling the planet by bouncing the sun’s heat back out into space. In addition, the reestablished trillions of tiny plankton fins churn the ocean for hundreds of meters down into the colder deeper water, bringing desperately needed cooling to today’s dangerously overheated top layer of the ocean.

As if that wasn’t enough, you probably heard about the nightmare of "ocean acidification" destroying the world's coral reefs, amongst other atrocious consequences. Plankton creation causes that CO2 to no longer form acidic molecules, because that CO2 instead gets repurposed, via photosynthesis, into plankton and other life forms, thereby greatly reducing the acidity of the ocean. H2O+CO2 = acid, whereas H2O+CO2+photosynthesis = new life. This process transforms CO2 from deadly waste to constructive asset.

100 Villages

Imagine this ocean pasture restoration being carried out by 100 villages around the globe. There is a movement that is just now beginning called "100 Villages."

The man who guided the Haida tribe to their success in 2012, Russ George, is currently carefully identifying which ocean pastures are the most promising for this restoration work worldwide. At the same time, various villages that now suffer the same drought that the Haida overcame, and whose denizens heard the news of that successful Haida fishery restoration, are now reaching out to Russ, requesting him to work with them to "bring back the fish."

Some critics have made the erroneous claim that this method will cause problems for the ocean ecology. They charge that the volume of dust that the villages will drop overboard from boats into the waters of their ocean pastures will cause harm to the environment. I asked Russ about this, and he gave me this interesting answer.

With the Haida we dropped 100 tons of the dust into the ocean. I did some calculations on the February 25, 2020 dust storm in the Canary Islands, and this storm has dropped at least 500,000 tons of dust into the ocean, and it is still dusting. It will go over 1 million tons I think before it is over, and this is occurring in an area about 50 times larger than the typical ocean pasture which we dust. 1 million tons generates no environmental comments, but my 100 tons generates environmental outrage. Go figure. We know from 100 years of data on Canary Island dust storms that they have always been shown to benefit the fish, and that this dust is always a blessing and never a curse.

Remember that all of the warming and harm to the oceans we see now is from "yesterday's CO2," gases which are already sitting up there in the sky. They will not disappear anytime soon unless we do something to remove them. "Tomorrow's CO2" emissions reduction, which includes making our energy systems clean for the future, is indeed crucial to avoid an additional increment of the ruinous greenhouse effect, so yes, we must reduce emissions with fierce diligence, but even if by magic we had zero emissions tomorrow, it would not solve our current and ongoing problem of being broiled by yesterday’s CO2.

All CO2 removal ideas should be explored, as we need all the help we can get from all the methods we can muster. But we must start with our best options, and ocean pasture restoration actually has the capacity to repurpose enough CO2 to give us a chance to avoid climate ruin.

Coronavirus and Ocean Pasture Restoration

Climate restoration leader Peter Fiekowsky points out why ocean pasture restoration is even more important given the current worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

"Coastal villages around the world have lost their fisheries and in many cases had to depend on tourism for income and sustenance," Fiekowsky said. "This has been devastating to their fishing cultures. These cultures developed over centuries and are too precious to lose. The Coronavirus has stopped tourism, leaving these villages destitute. They have practically no fish and no tourists. This is leaving their children malnourished and desperate."

Launching the project in 100 villages will bring badly needed investment to those communities.

"There will be a hundred villages, spread around the world's oceans that will begin to host ocean pasture restoration in the next few years," Fiekowsky said. "These villages will prosper with the employment of scientists, tradesmen, sailors, managers, and administrators implementing OPR in their territorial waters. In addition to the healthy nutritious fish they will have reliable employment, not just for the OPR workers, but for all the fishermen along their coasts."

"There is a chain of events that must happen before OPR is implemented in the fishery waters," he explained. "The chain starts with forming businesses, agreements, financial commitments, training, as well as investment for the local fishing industry to acquire boats again. We are getting all the required people and agreements together so that the relevant actors and resources are in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, the 2012 Haida 'People of the Salmon' demonstration created a guide for getting this all done."

The COVID-19 virus has temporarily slowed the progress of 100 Villages. But the preparatory work is continuing and, after the virus subsides, the 100 Villages will do their huge part of climate repair. It's the Next Big Thing. The beauty of it is that this momentous work will be done by common folks, with relatively modest investments from the outside that will show swift healthy returns. The up-front investments will be needed to pay for salaried scientists, managers, and offices, but the costs are in the doable low millions of dollars, not the demoralizing mega billions and trillions that you see in the media for repairing the climate.

Beyond the finances, the 100 Villages will look to the rest of us for encouragement. Our job is to make sure that the dominant political forces do not block their vital work. We should all tweet, post on social media, and write articles that explain why Ocean Pasture Restoration is crucial to our survival. We must create a nurturing political space so that the 100 Villages can successfully get on with their work to quickly bring back the fish, and consequently the Climate.