A Farm That Extends Deep Into The Sea Is Trying To Create Ocean Vegetarianism

Just because there are no more fish doesn’t mean the ocean is done as a food source. Because a small amount of ocean surface means a lot of space below, seaweed farms could be the food source of the future.

Humans should eat the entire water column, says Bren Smith, a commercial fisherman in New York. Leaving home at 14 to catch cod and crab, Smith grew disillusioned by what he calls "one of the most unhealthy, destructive forms of food production on the planet." He has since turned a small muddy patch of the Long Island Sound into a three-dimensional ocean farm that he claims can not only help save the oceans, but feed the world.

At the moment, commercial fishing picks off top predators such as tuna, while ravaging the rest by towing miles of drift nets or dragging metal chains on the seabed. This age of hunting and gathering is now coming to an end whether we like it or not. The ocean’s bounty has proved not only finite: it simply no longer exists. Decades of research about the world’s fisheries show most populations have been fished to their limit, or are in collapse. Global marine catches, which peaked in the mid-1990s, are now in a slow decline, states the FAO’s 2012 review (PDF).

Smith says he is harvesting seafood in ways that restore, not deplete, the ocean. On 20 underwater acres near the Thimble Islands, his 3D Ocean Farm sprouts seaweed and mussels on two 150-foot floating ropes anchored above oyster and clam cages. The Sound’s cold, clean waters turn this modest gear into tons of prime seafood. With a Kickstarter campaign he raised enough money to sink 10 more longlines that he expects will yield 26 tons of kelp and 60,000 mussels within five months. Smith plans to post the plans online for free, and urges cooks to whip up up kelp linguini, kelp ice cream--even kelp cocktails--which are already on menus at il Buco, Morimoto’s and other elite New York restaurants.

We interviewed Smith by email to explain his model, and the future of farming the oceans. Smith’s highest hope, he says, is that he is not alone in the next decade: "If I am the only ocean farmer doing this in 10 years then I will have failed."

Co.Exist: What was your inspiration for what you’re doing now? How did other fisherman take to your ideas at first? And today? 

Bren Smith: My inspiration was born from failure. My farm was destroyed two years in a row--first by Hurricane Irene, second by Sandy. Both times I lost 80% of my oyster crop and over 50% of gear. In the era of climate change, these powerful storms are the new normal, so I had to adapt. I began experimenting with using the entire water column--going 3D--in order to make my farm hurricane proof (the problem with hurricanes are the storm surges, which bring in three feet of mud and bury oysters and clams sitting on the ocean floor.) I also began planting other crops-- seaweed--that seeded after hurricane season and grow quickly. The downside of climate change is that it is wreaking havoc, the upside is that it spurs innovation and forces us to re imagine both our food systems and economy. I’m a small part of this emerging creative process.

At first--and still--most fishermen think I’m crazy. Growing sea-vegetables and promoting ocean vegetarianism sounds ridiculous to them. But a fascinating and unexpected outcome of the Kickstarter campaign is that I have been contacted by fishing communities, students, and policy makers around the globe asking me whether my model would work in different places and contexts. My view is that the 3D model of growing specifically chosen species that restore rather than deplete our oceans is replicable globally. So yes, I’m considered a little crazy, but our oceans are in trouble and maybe what we need is a little crazy.

You’ve said some commercial fishing and aquaculture operations are unsustainable (at a minimum), and we need to change. Is the conventional way of commercial fishing coming to an end, along with that lifestyle (the one you joined on your first fishing boat at 14)? 

Yes, I believe so. I worked the factory trawlers at the peak of industrial fishing, tearing up entire ecosystems. You combine the hyper efficiency of fishing technology with booming global population dependent on seafood as a primary source of protein, chasing ever-dwindling fish stocks around the globe is not longer viable. The solutions so far have been small bore: transitioning fishermen to hook-and-line, limiting fish quotas, creating conservation zones. They are part of the solution, but will not meet the rising demand for seafood in the era of climate change. Fish populations like cod might rebound with proper management, but we will never be able to fish the seas like we once did. I miss chasing fish. I’ve been a commercial fishermen since the age of 14, when I dropped out of high school and headed out to sea. I miss the adventure and the brotherhood amongst fishermen. Now I’m farming, it’s more like raising arugula than chasing fish. It lacks the adrenaline of fishing. I call it the least deadliest catch.

For fisherman who want to adopt your model, what are the barriers: technical and otherwise? How would you gauge your profitability compared to a typical fisherman’s or aquaculture operation? 

The barriers to entry are quite low. Anyone with 20 acres and a boat can replicate my model. It can also be moved to scale quite quickly. In a 300-foot-by-300-foot area alone I can grow 24 tons of kelp in five months. It does not require large boats, cranes or other high costs machinery. The main barrier is permitting because there is a legitimate concern that carving out an area of the ocean to grow things interrupts others’ boating rights. Luckily, because the model is 3D, it is an incredibly efficient use of space with a small footprint and a low aesthetic impact. But permitting will always be a challenge. In terms of income, the key is to choose species carefully. The wonderful thing about kelp is that it has multiple uses beyond food. It is an organic fertilizer (I am currently working with the Yale Sustainable Food Project on a fertilizer program). It can be converted into biofuel, which I am working on with University of Connecticut--this is already huge in Europe.) It is also used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. So the multiple markets allow for multiple income streams, moving beyond just food.

Do you see any limits to scaling your model? Why has it taken so long for farms like yours to emerge? 

What I love about this model is that it can be scaled and replicated. If we were to create a network of 3D farms like mine around the world, you could technically feed everyone on the planet. Now not everyone is going to become an ocean vegetarian, but it shows the potential for scaling up. My view is that these farms should be nestled amongst conservation zones, incorporated into wind farms, and so forth. Politically, it’s the permitting problem and people’s understandable wish to keep the oceans a wild space. The problem is that our oceans appear pristine but are dying from below the surface. To save the seas we need a new strategy. In terms of why it’s taken so long for farms like mine to emerge? It’s mainly because aquaculture has been trying to grow what people have traditionally eaten--salmon, tuna, etc. The key is not to meet consumer existing taste preferences but to change them, shaped around restorative species. Kelp sounds strange and exotic, but it’s local. So we are changing tastes by "Americanizing" it by making kelp butter, kelp ice cream, kelp pasta. Once we’ve re-imagined the dinner plate, the farms will follow.

What are your long-term scaling plans? You reached you Kickstarter goal: how big can you go beyond the educational element? What are other farmers/fisherman in your area saying or doing in response? 

I have 100 acres at my disposal, so I could grow immensely. I expect to grow to 50 acres or so--but remember because it’s 3D, that will yield massive amounts of food. I’ll open-source the model so anyone with 20 acres and a boat can start a farm, then I will buy their kelp and funnel into my various startups in food, fuel, fertilizers. Both in my area and literally around the globe I’ve gotten requests to help pollinate my model. It’s been the most unexpected result of the Kickstarter. My view is that if I am the only ocean farmer doing this in 10 years then I will have failed. This is about building a blue-green economy so that fishing communities can prosper--including me.

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