How to farm in the ocean without pillaging it

Bren Smith at TEDxBermuda (Photo: TEDxBermuda)

Bren Smith at TEDxBermuda (Photo: TEDxBermuda)

Bren Smith’s farms lie beneath the surface of the oceans — underwater havens for baby oysters, clams, scallops and kelp. Smith maintains plots of water off the coast of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and at TEDxBermuda, he explains how he got into the business of non-traditional “ocean farming.”

For years Smith worked in commercial fishing, an industry he says was “pillaging the oceans” and “ripping up entire ecosystems with our trawls.” As he learned more about the industry he grew up in, he realized he wanted to do fishing differently, but wasn’t quite sure how, until his stopgap solution — a burgeoning small oyster farm in the Long Island Sound — was destroyed by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. “Eighty percent of crop lost and most of my gear lost at sea two years in row — it forced me to adapt,” he says.

He took stock of what was going on in the waters around him — ocean¬†acidification, nutrient pollution, rising water temperatures, mass shellfish die-outs — and he decided he needed to completely redesign everything about his business. “My job, my farm, my oysters were canaries in the coal mine for a climate crisis that has arrived 100 years earlier than expected,” he says.

Bren Smith with lines of kelp (Photo: Bren Smith / GreenWave)

Bren Smith with lines of kelp (Photo: Bren Smith / GreenWave)

So he turned to science. He reached out to Dr. Charles Yarish of the University of Connecticut’s Marine Biotechnology Lab — who was studying different seaweeds and their potential to reduce ocean acidification and nutrient pollution — and asked him about ways to put his research into practice in the ocean. “I took his research and I embedded it into my farm,” Smith says.

Bren Smith with Dr. Charles Yarish (Photo: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Bren Smith with Dr. Charles Yarish (Photo: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The result was a method of farming that Smith calls 3D ocean farming — a system that uses the whole water column to grow shellfish and seaweed vertically. “Hurricane-proof” anchors steady buoy-supported lines of kelp, socks of mussels and nets of scallops, alongside buried clams and resting oyster cages, creating a low-impact system that moves with the ocean. The farm is practically invisible from the shore, and this is how Smith likes it. “There’s nothing to see but some buoys,” he says, “but that’s a good thing. Our oceans are a beautiful, pristine, wild places, so our farm is underwater; it has a low aesthetic impact because that’s the way we want to keep our seas.”

An animation of the vertical farms run by TEDxBermuda speaker Bren Smith  (Animation:Patrick Mustain, Scientific American)

An illustration of the vertical farms run by TEDxBermuda speaker Bren Smith (Animation: Patrick Mustain, Scientific American)

Smith's farm as seen from the shore (Photo: Bren  Smith)

Smith’s farm as seen from the shore (Photo: Bren Smith)

Smith’s goal is to make the most of a small place. “I’ve been using the whole water column and growing a lot more food on 20 acres than I used to on 100 acres [with traditional fishing techniques],” he says. “We’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of seaweeds, and even harvesting salt from our 20 acres.” His Thimble Island Ocean Farm is even a Community Supported Fishery (CSF), the marine version of a CSA, which pays supporters in shares of fresh seafood.

With these vertical farms, Smith can grow food, fertilizer and work to make sure his area of the ocean has its fair share of restorative crops like kelp, which is key in carbon absorption and which can be used to make bio-fuel. “Kelp soaks up five times the amount of carbon than land-based plants,” Smith says. “It’s called the sequoia of the sea. In my own little way, my farm is running a carbon sequestration plant.”

And it’s also edible, and Smith hopes to make a normal part of the American diet. “The whole idea is to carve out a section of the dinner plate to not eat fish, but to eat what fish eat,” he says. “Because fish don’t make Omega-3s and all these wonderful things, they eat them, so if we begin eating like fish, we get all the benefits, but reduce pressure on fish stocks.”

Local chefs have signed on to the project, including award-winning Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger in Manhattan, and others who are creating kelp noodles, cocktails, butters and more with Smith’s crop.

Kelp-inspired dishes made my Smith's chef friends (Photos: Bren Smith)

Kelp-inspired dishes made my Smith’s chef friends (Photos: Bren Smith)

But, above all, Smith cares for the other fisherman out there, people dedicated to the business and its livelihood. Which is why he’s hoping more of them will join him. “Why can’t we make a million new ocean farmers in the next 10 years?” he asks. “We have to innovate; we have to figure out strategies for resiliency; we have to completely change our relationship to the planet and reformat our economy around principles of sustainability.”

Bren Smith out farming (Photo: Bren Smith)

Bren Smith out farming (Photo: Bren Smith)

To Smith, the future of seafood is in underwater farms, and in kelp and seaweed and local “fish food.”

To learn more, watch Smith’s whole talk below:

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