5 Ocean Startups Transforming the Future of Marine Conservation

Wave crashing in the ocean.

The oceans play a vital role in maintaining life on earth. They house the phytoplankton that produce half the earth’s oxygen. They also form the foundation of the marine ecosystem. But human activity is now threatening that role. Combustion of fossil fuels is causing ocean acidification. Plastic waste is destroying marine creatures by ingestion, suffocation and entanglement. And overfishing has placed certain species in peril. Several startups are working to turn the tide. In this brief, we turn the spotlight on five of them: 12 Tides, Ashored Innovations, Brim Explorer, Pesky Fish, and SafetyNet Technologies.

Saving the Oceans

Earth is a watery planet. Over 70% of its surface is covered by water, but there’s also a lot of water in the atmosphere, in the soil, and in the bodies of plants and animals. In terms of volume, oceans dominate, holding about 96.5% of all Earth’s water, which makes them a vital resource. Indeed, it’s been estimated that the oceans generate $2.5 trillion worth of economic activity every year, with fishing and aquaculture providing direct and indirect employment to 10% to 12% of the world’s population. 

A report by the Italian One Ocean Foundation puts our dependence on the oceans even higher. 

“Over 3 billion people (40% of the world’s population) depend on the biodiversity and services offered by marine and coastal ecosystems,” it says. 

Yet, despite their importance, the oceans of the world are badly treated. Our oceans are plagued by acidification, filled with garbage and plastic, and suffering from ghost fishing and overfishing. It’s difficult to say which problem is the worst, for they all carry devastating consequences.

Ocean Obstacles

Ocean acidification is caused by an abundance of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, some of which eventually dissolves in the ocean water. Oceans absorb about 30% of the carbon dioxide in the air, so as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, so too does the amount taken up by ocean water. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to produce carbonic acid. The increase in acidity has had detrimental effects on marine life, such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, corals, and calcareous plankton.

Garbage is another major worry. Garbage of all sorts now litters our oceans. Much of it — about 80% — is plastic. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that close to 9 million tons of plastic, “equivalent to a full garbage truck dumped into the sea every minute,” ends up in our oceans. Fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals are all affected. Some perish after being entangled or suffocated by plastic debris. Others die from starvation after ingesting plastic, which fills the stomach leaving no room for food. 

Although the more visible evidence of plastic pollution is the bottles, bags, and crates that float on the surface, the danger posed by these large pieces of plastic, although worrying, is exceeded by the hazard presented by microplastics. These are the much smaller pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm in size (about one-fifth of an inch). Over time, and with exposure to the elements, some plastics harden and become brittle. Then the motion of the sea breaks them up into much smaller pieces or microplastics. Some microplastics, like microbeads — tiny bits of plastic added to body washes, toothpaste, and other consumer products as an exfoliant or abrasive — are made small.

Microplastics pose a serious threat because they are less visible and more likely to affect the food chain. Unlike larger pieces of plastic that float visibly on the surface, microplastics are less noticeable. Additionally, because of their size, they may be mistaken for the smaller organisms that marine life feeds on, entering the food chain, and thus finding its way into our diet. To combat this growing threat, in 2015, the US passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which banned the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products

Plastic in the oceans has been accumulating in “patches” created by gyres, the large natural ocean currents that circulate the earth. The five major gyres, where large accumulations of garbage form, are in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest; it covers an area of around 618,000 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers), an area almost the size of Alaska, and three times the size of France, the largest country in Europe by land area. 

The plastic problem has not gone unnoticed at the government level. By early February 2021, eight US states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont — had imposed a ban on single-use plastic bags. Prohibiting the use of plastic bags is possibly the easiest way to begin reducing the use of plastics. Across the world, an estimated trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year. To date, 115 nations have instituted some sort of prohibition on plastic packaging and bags. The issue has been on the United Nations agenda since 2012, which has heightened awareness. There might have been an international agreement in 2019, but the US balked at signing a treaty and the momentum for an agreement faltered. 

Things have changed since then. The Biden administration has already signaled its concern about environmental issues. On January 20, 2021, the day he was sworn in, President Biden reaccepted the Paris Climate Agreement. His administration has proposed a record $6.9 billion in funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The private sector is also responding, albeit slowly. Over the past decade, just $8 billion has been invested globally in developing a Sustainable Ocean Economy (SOE), and this mostly from philanthropy. Nevertheless, the potential for further development is there. Pegged conservatively at $1.5 trillion in 2010, the ocean economy is expected to reach $3 trillion by 2030.

Ocean Opportunities

The sectors with the most promise are marine aquaculture, offshore wind, fish processing, and ship-building and repair. But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has identified other areas, such as tidal and wave energy, and carbon capture and storage, that also have potential. The organization’s forecasts for the 2030 ocean economy are shown in a chart. The business-as-usual projection is simply one that assumes a continuation of past trends. 

What about entrepreneurial activity in these areas? Startup Savant spoke to a handful of ocean conservation pioneers who, in different ways, are playing their part to save our oceans from further deterioration.

Brim Explorer – Maritime Electric Propulsion

From the Land of the Midnight Sun comes the intrepid duo of Espen Larsen Hakkebo and Agnes Arnadottir, co-founders of Brim Explorer. The Norwegian startup was founded in 2018 to offer tour cruises in an environmentally friendly way. The company does this by ferrying tourists around in silent hybrid-electric ships. Such boats offer at least two distinct advantages to fossil fuel-powered vessels. They pollute less when under electric power and don’t cause as much disturbance. As well as disrupting their communication, the noise from diesel engines can cause a great deal of stress to marine life. 

Brim Explorer boats have batteries that can last up to 10 hours at a speed of 10 knots. This means they can travel over 100 miles on electric power. For longer distances, the boats carry engines that run on non-polluting biodiesel, a fuel made from vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled restaurant grease.

Pesky Fish – Sustainable Seafood Sourcing

Pesky Fish is also playing its part by operating a logistics system that aims ‘to build a better and more sustainable fishing industry for fish, fishermen, and consumers across the world.’ A tall order, no doubt, but one way the startup is working to achieve sustainability is by selling directly to consumers. That allows fishers to sell some of their bycatch, which otherwise would simply be dumped. Fishers typically focus their efforts on catching the species of fish most in demand. On Pesky Fish’s home turf, the UK, the five most desired species, known as the Big Five, are cod, haddock, prawns, salmon, and tuna. Other species — bycatch — won’t be bought by the middlemen who sell on to groceries and the service industry. But consumers might if they’re given a chance, says Pesky Fish. By making all of a fisherman’s catch visible to the market, demand is reduced on pressured stocks, that is, the most popular species.

The brains behind the venture are Ben King and Aiden Berry. Having lived for some time in Japan, King saw the efforts taken to preserve the quality of fish there, a stark contrast to the way things are done in the UK. In Britain, you’re likely to find two-week-old fish for sale in the local supermarket. 

Getting fish on consumers’ plates as quickly as possible is, of course, a logistics problem mainly. So King was happy when Berry expressed an interest in contributing to the venture. Logistics is Berry’s forte. Before he joined Pesky Fish, Berry had just spent two years as a logistics manager with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

12 Tides – Food from Regenerative Ocean Farms

Pat Schnettler is the founder of 12 Tides, a US startup that produces snacks from kelp. Kelp is —large brown algae, one of several types of seaweed. The kelp is grown in regenerative ocean farms, a marine activity that’s akin to afforestation. The kelp forests restore, to some extent, marine ecosystems that have been compromised in some way, particularly by ocean acidification. Kelp forests produce food and habitat for many types of birds, such as cormorants, great blue herons, gulls, snowy egrets, and terns, as well as aquatic species, such as seals, sea lions, sea otters, and whales. 

The kelp, in common with other varieties of seaweed, can play an important role in carbon sequestration. Although kelp is not a plant (it belongs to the Protista kingdom of life), it employs oxygenic photosynthesis just as plants do. (Not all photosynthesis results in the production of oxygen.) The potential of oxygenic photosynthesis for carbon sequestration is illustrated by the following chemical equation:

6CO2 + 12H2O + Light Energy → C6H12O6 + 6O2 + 6H2O 

In photosynthesis, six molecules of carbon dioxide are converted into one molecule of carbohydrate (C6H12O6 ) and six molecules of oxygen. The process is a net user of water (H2O). 

Kelp utilizes this process on a supercharged scale because it flourishes rapidly. The giant kelp of the California coast grows at a rate of 10 to 15 feet every week. Adding mass at such a rapid rate means that kelp extracts immense amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

But carbon sequestration is not all kelp can do. The algae can be made into tasty snacks, which is exactly what 12 Tides is doing. The company is producing flavored puffed chips from a type of seaweed called nori that has been used in Japanese cuisine for centuries.

“That is a different species of seaweed that is not grown in North America,” Mr. Schnettler said. “It’s called nori. It’s a red seaweed and has a fishier taste to it, and it almost entirely comes from Southeast Asia, China, and Korea.”

 San Mateo startup incubator KitchenTown provided invaluable connections for the startup, as well as assistance with setting up manufacturing facilities. By the start of 2020, 12 Tides was ready to make a splash, but the onset of the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. 

“We landed on the current product format that we had at Fancy Food that was super hot off the press … and we built up a little manufacturing capacity and then the global pandemic hit,” Mr. Schnettler said.

Fancy Food is a San Francisco trade show that features specialty food and beverage products. 

 “That may be delayed us by a couple weeks,” Schnettler continued. “ We ended up turning on the website in April [2020], and that was sort of our soft launch. And then we entered retail in June.” 

12 Tides’ snacks are flavored with umami, an exotic name for monosodium glutamate, which has been described as the fifth taste, the other four being sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

Ashored Innovations – Sustainable Ocean Harvesting

The fishing industry is plagued with problems caused by marine entanglement. While fishermen generally target one or a limited number of species, fishing equipment is not as discerning. Accordingly, non-targeted species of fish and other marine creatures, as well the young of targeted species, are trapped in nets. Ghost nets exacerbate the trouble by continuing to trap marine life long after being lost or abandoned. Ashored Innovations hopes to mitigate this distressing state of affairs with a “ropeless” fishing system. 

The Modular Ocean Based Instrument (MOBI), its first product, is a pop-up buoy system. The buoy is attached to apparatus that’s connected to fishing traps. A rope also connects the buoy and apparatus. When its release is triggered by an acoustic signal, the buoy floats to the surface, and the rope allows the traps to be retrieved. The “smart” buoy also collects data on date, location, weather, tides, and water temperature. 

Ashored has also developed a product called Atlas, which uses radio frequency ID and sonar, that can track the location and ownership of fishing gear. This allows the equipment to be retrieved and avoids the problem of ghost fishing. 

The Canadian startup was founded by Ross Arsenault and Aaron Stevenson, two alumni of Saint Mary’s University, a public university located in Nova Scotia, Canada. In 2019, the company won $75,000 in funding from Boston-based incubator MassChallenge. Additionally, in June 2020, the federal government of Canada awarded the company $702,000 to facilitate the production of its “acoustically activated rope-less fishing system for use in the lobster and crab fisheries.”

Safety Net Technologies

Safety Net Technologies (SNTech), a British startup, is contributing to ocean conservation by reducing bycatch, that is, marine creatures and those species of fish caught unintentionally. The company’s technology revolves around light-emitting devices (LED), which can be retrofitted to fishing gear and programmed to emit different wavelengths of light. Certain species of fish are attracted by particular wavelengths while repelling others. In testing, the PISCES system, as it is known, has “reduced bycatch by up to 90 percent and increased fishing-trip revenues by roughly 50 percent.” 

SNTech was founded in 2011 by Dan Watson, at that time a graduate student at the University of Glasgow. The company set out to find a way of helping fishermen who were having a problem with bycatch. Catching fish you don’t want is a waste of time, effort, fuel, and fish. Throwing unwanted fish back in the sea was no good because by the time the catch was sorted the fish would no longer be alive. As a result, regulators in many jurisdictions have forbidden the practice. But bycatch isn’t just unwanted types of fish. It includes other marine animals that get caught in the nets, as well as juveniles, on whom the survival of the species depends. 

The solution was light. Fish rely on their vision to orientate, forage, breed, and evade predators. They are attracted by certain colors — green works best — and repelled by others. So together with business partner Aran Dasan and others, Dan created an LED system that could be attached to fishing gear. The prototypes were successful enough to win seed funding from Young’s Seafood, Dyson, and Sir Richard Branson. 

In early January, the company received $1.5 million in a seed round funding that was led by Mustard Seed Impact Ltd. and the Althelia Sustainable Ocean Fund, a fund managed by Mirova Natural Capital. Also joining the round was Conservation International Ventures, which contributed $250,000. 

Startup Savant spoke to Danielle Anthony, Communications Manager of SNTech:

“We are not the first people to introduce artificial lights into fishing. Fishing using artificial light has existed for thousands of years,” she said. “However, scientists recently started studying how fish behaviour can be influenced by different colors of light. Other studies began looking at how different colors of light could reduce bycatch and found promising results. Dan came across some of these studies and wanted to create a product to reduce bycatch using light that is also easy for fishing crews to use. Through years of working with scientists and commercial fishers, we have created PISCES, a configurable LED light. PISCES uses different colors of light to attract certain species of fish, scare away unwanted marine species (bycatch) and act as an exit sign to guide bycatch out of the net.”

Funding in the early years came from a variety of sources:

“SNTech got off the ground through seven years’ unpaid work, prizes, private philanthropy, and bootstrapping. However, it is public and private investments that have more recently accelerated our growth and sped us towards SafetyNet Technologies’ vision of Precision Fishing.”

Their biggest challenge has been getting people to take ocean conservation issues seriously. “The ocean is out of sight and out of mind for most people; therefore, there is little funding for early-stage conservation technologies in the ocean sector. In fact, less than 1% of global philanthropy goes towards ocean conservation.”

But, Anthony says, perhaps a seachange is imminent. “While ocean technologies still aren’t funded sufficiently ($500 million out of $502 billion impact investments in 2019), more investors — particularly in the impact space — have started to take an interest.“

With those encouraging comments in mind, we hope to see more startups working to save our oceans in the future. 

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Anthony de Freitas

Anthony is the owner of Kip Art Gifts, an ecommerce store that specializes in art-inspired jewelry, fashion accessories, and other objects. Previously, he worked as an accountant and financial analyst. He enjoys writing on small business, financial intermediation, and economics. Anthony was educated at Wilson’s School and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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