Impact Journalism Day
When Bren Smith became an “ocean farmer”
A former commercial fisherman is shifting paradigms one ocean farm at a time.
A visionary, you might say, is someone who can take two negatives and create an even greater positive. That's what Bren Smith, a Newfoundland native who now makes his home near the coastal city of New Haven, Connecticut, is doing.
As a former commercial fisherman, Smith participated in the depletion of the ocean's wild fish populations and lived through the crash of the cod-fishing industry. He is also well aware of the devastation wrought by large-scale land-based agriculture. Combining these catastrophes and turning them inside out, he has reinvented himself as an "ocean farmer." And he wants others—out-of-work fishermen, as well as anyone willing to commit—to do the same.
Smith believes his model, which he calls 3-D ocean farming, can help feed the world's 7.4 billion people and help heal the environment. His model is an underwater farm—one that uses not just the ocean floor but the whole water column, effectively enabling him to produce maximum yield in a minimal area.
On a bright, cold morning in March, Smith, a solidly built, boyish 40-something with a shaved head and a rust-colored beard, stepped into his fishing boat, the Mookie, and chugged out to the farm.
Two meters below the surface of the water, a system of lines was suspended from buoys; from these horizontal lines other lines hung vertically, creating a three-dimensional grid. Nutrient-rich kelp, planted along the horizontal lines, was growing downward toward the ocean floor. At intervals amid the kelp and at various depths hung mesh nets containing mussels, scallops, oysters, and, down in the mud, clams.
The value of kelp
Smith's choice of crops is as strategic as the system itself. Kelp, which can grow almost three meters in five months, absorbs nitrogen from agricultural runoff and pulls up to five times more CO2 from the air than land plants; high in minerals and vitamins, it can be harvested to feed people and animals, or turned into liquid fertilizer or biofuel. A single oyster filters up to 200 liters of water a day, removing nitrogen from the water. The farm thus lessens some effects of climate change and pollution even as it produces food, fuel, fertilizer and feed.
The result is a compact farm requiring exactly zero input—no fertilizer, fresh water or arid land—and boasting a negative footprint.
What gives this innovative model impact, however, is Smith's broader vision. "The idea is to create 'reefs' consisting of 25 farms, situated around a hatchery and seafood hub for processing, with stable channels of distribution, and reproduce that every 200 miles," he explained. "This will create regional 'merroirs'—Napa Valleys of the ocean—as well as jobs." The reefs also act as storm-surge protectors, reducing the impact of hurricanes, and attract dozens of species, from striped bass to seals, replacing former "dead zones" with thriving ecosystems.
Smith can't do this alone. So in 2014 he created GreenWave, a nonprofit designed to facilitate the replication of his model while building infrastructure and conducting R&D on new kelp-based products. The organization aims to train a generation of ocean farmers who will help "restore ocean ecosystems, mitigate climate change and create blue-green jobs...while providing healthy, local food for communities."
To be eligible as a GreenWave apprentice, one must have $30,000 to invest (less in other parts of the world), a boat and 20 acres. The organization supplies permitting guidance, seed-to-harvest training, free gear and marketing support, and guarantees it will buy 50 percent of a farmer's crops for the first few years of operation. Smith also plans to publish an open-source manual so that anyone can replicate the model anywhere in the world.
Cleaning our eating habits
It's not just the water and air Smith wants to clean. He aims to clean up our eating habits, too, by, as he said, "moving seafood to the edge of the plate" and placing sea vegetables such as kelp in the middle. Such a food revolution will require making kelp both versatile and palatable, and Smith is working with renowned New York-based chefs to do just that. He's also developing a food truck that will take "kelp cuisine" out of fancy restaurants and into the streets, as well as a Beyond Fish retail store. In New Haven, GreenWave runs a cooperative hatchery and seafood hub; sales from seaweed and shellfish (along with private and government grants) help fund the nonprofit.
GreenWave has received requests to start farms in every coastal state of the U.S. as well as in Canada, South Africa and Asia. Smith can't meet the demand, so he picked some emblematic places: "Newfoundland, because it was the heart of the cod fishery, and California, because the permitting is so complicated—it's a good challenge for us to figure out." He's also working in Trinidad and Tobago.
Just as ambitious is Smith's determination to create an economic revolution. "The old economy is built on the arrogance of growth at all costs, profiting from pollution, and the refusal to share economic gains with 99 percent of Americans," he recently wrote in an online essay. In it, he describes his story as one of "ecological redemption" and lays out his credo: "grow food the right way, provide good middle-class jobs, restore ecosystem, and feed the planet."
Smith sees opportunity in crisis. "I'm optimistic because Mother Nature has joined the battlefield," he said. "Every time there's a storm or drought it will create an opening for
alternatives. We must ask, Do we have an alternative to step in with?"
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