Can Our Oceans Save Humankind?
Ocean farming pioneer Bren Smith is promoting the ocean in quite a different way than many ocean conservationists: instead of carefully preserving pieces of the ocean, let’s turn it around and have the ocean save us.
“We’re in the biggest mass extinction in human history in the oceans right now,” Smith told Organic Connections. “These are really dire times. Some think we humans need to save the seas, and I actually think the seas can save us because of the technologies that Mother Nature came up with hundreds of millions of years ago. We can deal with carbon, food shortages, fuel problems, ocean ‘dead zones’ and much more.”
Some important people are paying attention to Smith and what he is doing through his Long Island–based Thimble Island Oyster Company. Yale University is working with him on several of his programs, and he has attracted the interest of the US Department of Energy.
Journey of Repentance
Smith came to his work after witnessing firsthand the damage being caused to our oceans—and at one point even being an unwitting participant. “I’ve been fishing my whole life,” he said. “I dropped out of school when I was 14 and went and worked out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. I also worked out of Newfoundland and then up in Alaska in the Bering Sea. I worked on lobster boats, crab boats, trawlers, and fished for cod. I say that I’m going through an ecological redemption because when I was up in Alaska I fished for McDonald’s for years. It was the height of industrial fishing. I mean, I was a kid and didn’t know, but it was the most industrially destructive kind of fishing on the planet, producing the worst, lowest-quality kind of food on the planet.”
But Smith did realize what was happening and decided to seek out methods that would leave our oceans thriving for future generations of fishermen like him. A number of years later, he founded Thimble Island Oyster Company—located in the Thimble Islands of Long Island Sound—and began the journey toward sustainability.
Sustainable 3-D Ocean Farming
Smith has made his discoveries through the creation of what he calls 3-D ocean farms, a growing method that utilizes the entire vertical water column. “On top of the water I have these floating longlines where I hang seaweeds,” Smith explained. “In between the kelp I have hanging mussels in things called mussel socks, and then also lantern nets where I keep scallops. Below that I have my cages of oysters and clams. It gives me a whole range of different kinds of things I’m growing; I think of it as a ‘sea basket.’” A prime difference between Smith and other ocean farmers is that others are normally growing one particular item, whereas he is growing many in his vertical farm.
From this sea basket come the traditional tasty shellfish. But additionally, kelp could serve a vital purpose in helping save mankind, while oysters and mussels could go a long way in healing our oceans.
“Ocean farming is awesome because there are no inputs,” Smith continued. “There’s no fresh water; there’s no fertilizer; there’s no arid land use. These are all drawbacks of land-based farming.
“You’re actually looking at the most sustainable kind of food production on the planet. And nutritionally, seaweeds are chock-full of more protein than soybeans, more calcium than milk, and more vitamin C than citrus fruits. They grow incredibly fast; kelp is the second fastest growing plant in the world, and in a five-month period I can produce about 53 tons of kelp.”
How many ways can seaweed be converted to food? It turns out there are quite a number of them. “When it’s very young it’s like a really thin leaf, even thinner than spinach,” said Smith. “As it gets bigger we can turn it into noodles; you can actually peel it if you want and get a translucent noodle. We also turn it into the equivalent of kale chips, only these are kelp chips.
“We have people in New York now making kelp butter, kelp ice cream, and of course we use it in salads. We’re going to do a kelp cocktail tasting in Brooklyn next month, which is 10 variations on kelp.
“While we’ll always eat fish, the demand for seafood is really going through the roof; something like 3.5 billion people rely on the ocean for their main source of protein. Pressures are just going to increase, so we actually need to eat some things out of the ocean that aren’t fish. The idea is let’s eat what fish eat. Fish don’t make the omega 3s and all those wonderful nutrients that we need so much—they eat them.”
Kelp can also solve another crucial climate change issue: a plentiful source of biofuel. “I thought this was nuts when I was first learning it, but we’ve just been talking to the Department of Energy,” Smith said. “They estimate that an area of kelp half the size of Maine can replace all the oil in the United States. It’s just stunning.” Smith has applied for a grant to pursue research on this area.
Ocean Environmental Cleanup
One particular aquatic issue that is greatly concerning environmentalists is that of ocean dead zones. Nitrate runoff from industrial agriculture fields causes algae to proliferate around river deltas. The algae then die and leach oxygen from the water.
Smith has seen a potential natural solution in shellfish. “Oysters are beautiful little agents of sustainability,” he pointed out. “They filter 30–50 gallons of water a day, and they pull out nitrogen as well as carbon from the water column.
“Nitrogen is the cause of these big dead zones. Nitrogen comes in and there are huge algae blooms. As algae dies it sucks all the oxygen out of the water column. Oysters grow through nitrogen, so they filter all that out and use it for their shells and things like that. There have been studies that actually measure the amount of nitrogen that’s being pulled out of the water by each oyster. Mussels are also really great filters in terms of nitrogen.”
With climate change heavily upon us, anything that could reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is obviously important. “Kelp is considered the rainforest of the sea,” Smith remarked. “It sequesters five times more carbon than land-based plants.”
Another factor that has environmentalists concerned is the disappearance of reefs near our shorelines. “Our cages and floating longlines function as artificial reefs that restore biodiversity by attracting over 100 species to our farm,” said Smith.
The Future on Our Seas
We’ve attracted a lot of interest now,” Smith indicated. “We’re expanding pretty fast. We’re going to probably quadruple production in the next year.”
Smith is sharing his methods with others as well. “I have a bunch of programs that I run with different universities and schools. I’ve got a sustainability program with the Yale Sustainable Food Project and have four Yale interns at this point. I’ve got kids down in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the Sound School actually doing the processing of a lot of my food, and learning about ocean farming.”
With climate change and other environmental factors, it may be that Smith is creating the future. “I was just talking to some coal miners in Kentucky, and they’re struggling with taking these communities and transitioning them into a new economy,” he related. “We need to do the same thing with fishing. For example, the fishing crisis continues to escalate and snowball, and they’re about to cut Maine’s quota, I think 77 percent in two or three weeks. There have also been massive cuts in Massachusetts. What are all these fishermen going to do in communities that for generations have lived off the sea? I think we can figure it out if we do this right,” Smith concluded. “We can transition into a blue-green economy where folks still get to work on the water; they still get to feed people and do all the things they love as a fishing community.”
For more information, please visit www.thimbleislandoysters.com.