Running Tide Technologies is a high-tech oyster farm that counts software developers and data scientists among its 30-person staff. We stop by and get the scoop on a new climate-focused underwater venture.
By Jon Kalish
Running Tide Technologies is an oyster farm with an eye on climate change. It does carbon sequestration by growing kelp and its 30 employees include software developers, instrumentation engineers, fabricators, and a data scientist who wrote her doctoral thesis on the impact of sea surface dynamics on ocean nutrients.
“We put oysters in our system, we grow them, we learn about what the oysters like and don’t like and then we adjust our gear accordingly,” said Marty Odlin, the Maine-based startup’s 38-year-old founder. “So it’s just this big iterative cycle where we listen to what the water tells us and to what the oysters tell us.”
Odlin relied on that iterative process just a few years out of Dartmouth, when he put his engineering degree to use and started a bamboo bike business in New York, which guided people as they built their own bamboo bicycles over the course of a weekend. After Odlin closed down Bamboo Bike Studio, he went home to Maine and worked in the family commercial fishing business. More than a dozen relatives-including his father, uncles, and cousins-have captained commercial fishing vessels over four generations.
“They’re pretty amazing people,” Odlin said. “They can go out in the middle of the ocean and pull food out of the water against amazing odds. And they do it over and over again.”
Odlin is also pulling food out of the water, but he doesn’t have to go out to sea to do it. Running Tide takes its name from the effect tides have on how oysters feed. When the tide is running, they open their shells to filter plankton and algae from seawater, resting in between the tides with their shells closed. Running Tide designed and fabricated four-ton aluminum oyster reefs that have a propeller to send water from one end of the barge-like structure to the other, creating the effect of a running tide.
“So what this does is during the times when there’s slack water, we can run a propeller and keep the oysters fed,” explained Odlin.
Running Tide’s oyster reefs were built inside a cavernous building that was once part of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Known as TechPlace, it’s now home to other start-ups, including one business that makes tidal power generators and another that manufactures floats for sea planes.
Running Tide used a water jet cutter to shear off pieces of aluminum for its oyster reefs. “We try to eliminate plastic in all of our farms [and] use as many ocean-friendly materials as possible,” Odlin said.
(Raspberry Pis on the processing boat)
Running Tide built a 60-by-24-foot oyster processing boat, now docked in a finger of Casco Bay in the town of Harpswell, with two oyster reefs floating at each end of the vessel. Inside the processing boat are a half-dozen Raspberry Pis that feed data to the cloud on water conditions, including temperature and acidity. The boat is essentially a huge catamaran that allows the 11-by-36-foot oyster reefs to float into it.
Running Tide’s Margaux Filippi, who has a PhD. from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said the company is working on underwater video cameras to monitor the oysters’ growth. The 29-year-old data scientist has built machine learning algorithms for ocean research and spent six years at MIT’s mechanical engineering department, where she mastered the process of rapid prototyping. She clearly enjoys Running Tide’s hacker culture.
“You don’t often have people with high engineering credentials who also have experience with marine environments,” Filippi said. “When you build for off-shore conditions, it’s very different than building for an office space or an environment that’s going to be controlled. Our team is very adaptable and good at improvising solutions for the marine environment.”
(Algae growing at Running Tide)
Filippi is hopeful that the various sensors in the water with Running Tide’s oysters will enable her to forecast harmful algae blooms that could doom the shellfish.
“If we have a lot of sensors and we’re able to track trends, then we may be able to predict in real time that an algae blooms is going to occur and then raise the [oyster] beds out of the water so the oysters don’t get contaminated,” Filippi said. “Oysters are calcifying organisms and the rise in acidity in seawater can be a hurdle for oysters to build their shells, so that’s something we’re also monitoring very closely.”
Inside the Hatchery
The use of sensors to monitor the growing environment starts in Running Tide’s oyster hatchery and nursery, where the company also grows algae. The two waterfront buildings have complex plumbing systems and an almost sci-fi feel to them. One visitor recently took in a row of 4-foot-tall fiberglass cylinders filled with green and orange algae growing and quipped that they looked like they were full of wheat juice and apricot nectar.
Karl Eschholz runs the hatchery. He wore orange rubber boots that seemed to match one of the tanks of algae. The lanky shellfish industry veteran sees himself as more of a farmer than biologist because he has to do a lot of plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work.
“Everything we do is life support for something and you really need that array of skills to do it,” Eschholz said. “Someone who has a straight research background might not know what to do if a pump fails.”
Eschholz showed off a bunch of sensors that measure pH, relative humidity, CO2, and dissolved oxygen. And he can monitor it all on his smartphone. “I find that really incredible,” he said. “I’ve never had that before at any of the five hatcheries where I worked before coming here.”
Also in the realm of the incredible is Running Tide’s plan to start kelp micro farms that will suck carbon out of the atmosphere. The appeal of kelp is that it can store up to 20 times more carbon per acre than forests on terra firma.
Running Tide plans to sink bio-degradable buoys and the kelp growing from their lines 10,000 feet or deeper, where the carbon will be sequestered for centuries. A small subset of the buoys will be equipped with GPS trackers and satellite modems; they’ll be retrieved by boat.
Odlin said the company hopes to start sending the kelp buoys out to sea in December or January. The method for sinking the buoys is still being developed. But each buoy will have a plug that will slowly be worn down by the sea, making a hole that sinks it. Remotely operated vehicles will be used to determine whether the buoys have sunk.
Kelp-covered buoy line (Image: Running Tide Technologies)
Earlier this month, Shopify announced it will fund Running Tide’s kelp project to fight climate change. It declined to provide details of the funding, but Stacy Kauk, director of Shopify’s Sustainability Fund, said, “We’ll also fund future deployments when the time is right to scale.”
Odlin and his wife Justine have two young sons, so they’re acutely aware of the perils climate change poses for their kids’ future. Although Running Tide is a for-profit enterprise, a critical part of its mission is to restore coastal ecosystems and help ameliorate what is arguably a climate nightmare, a catastrophe Odlin has taken to referring to as Godzilla.
“Godzilla is coming,” he said as he sat outside on the deck of his home. “There are fires in California and the Greenland ice sheet is melting and the Arctic’s going to have ice-free summers very soon. The world’s kind of going haywire right now. I just want to kill Godzilla.”
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.