The way we have been catching fish is killing both our oceans and ourselves. But now, the future of fishing is here, and it can save us all: 3D ocean farming.
Say hello to the fish farmer, Bren Smith. He is a visionary who will change the way we humans do things forever. As the owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm, and founder of a company called GreenWave, he has reinvented the fishing industry. His new pioneering model of regenerative ocean farming restores biodiversity and ecosystems, mitigates climate change, and creates blue-green jobs. At the same time, he is growing nourishing and delicious food, fertiliser, animal feed, and more – the true definition of a “triple bottom line.” And how has he done this? By designing a small-scale, affordable, underwater 3D farm. And, his model is open-sourced, which means that any fish farmer around Ireland can copy the plans and do it too. Here is Bren’s story:
I was born and raised in Newfoundland, Canada, in a little fishing village with fourteen salt-box houses painted in greens, blues, and reds so that fishermen could find their way home in the fog. At age fourteen I left school and headed out to sea. I fished the Georges Banks and the Grand Banks for tuna and lobster, then headed to the Bering Sea, where I fished cod and crab.
The trouble was I was working at the height of the industrialisation of food. We were tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, chasing fish further and further out to sea into illegal waters. It wasn’t just that we were pillaging. Most of my fish was going to McDonald’s for their fish sandwiches. There I was, still a kid, working in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet, producing some of the most unhealthy food on the planet. But God how I loved that job! The humility of being in 40-foot seas, the sense of solidarity that comes with being in the belly of a boat with thirteen other people working 30-hour shifts, and a sense of meaning and pride in helping to feed my country. I miss those days so, so much.
But then in the early 1990s the cod stocks crashed: thousands of fishermen thrown out of work, boats beached, canneries shuttered. This situation created a split in the industry: the captains of industry, who wanted to fish the last fish, were thinking ten years down the road, but there was a younger generation of us thinking fifty years out. We wanted to make our living on the ocean. I want to die on my boat one day—that’s my measure of success.
So we all went on a search for sustainability. I ended up in Northern Canada on an aquaculture farm. At that point aquaculture was supposed to be the great solution to overfishing, but when I got there I found more of the same, only using new technologies to pollute local waterways with pesticides and pumping fish full of antibiotics. We used to say that what we were growing was neither fish nor food. We were running the equivalent of factory farms at sea.
So I kept searching, ending up on Long Island Sound, where there was a new program in place to attract young fishermen back into the industry by opening up shellfishing grounds for the first time in 150 years. I signed up, leased some grounds from the state, and re-made myself as an oysterman. I did this for seven years. Then the storms hit. Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy thrashed the East Coast. Two years in a row the storms buried 90% of my crops in three feet of mud, and 40% of my gear was washed away in a sea of death. At the same time, lobster was being driven northward by warming waters, and acidification was increasing faster than at any other time in 300 million years, killing billions of oyster seed up and down our coasts.
Suddenly I found myself on the front lines of a climate crisis that had arrived one hundred years earlier than expected. For a long time I’d seen climate change only as an environmental issue because environmentalists were always framing it in terms of birds, bears, and bees, but I’m a fisherman. I kill things for a living; I grew up shooting moose out of my kitchen window. I never thought climate change had anything to do with my life. But it does. From my vantage point, climate change is not an environmental issue at all—it’s an economic issue. It turns out there will be no jobs on a dead planet.
After my farm was destroyed, it was clear to me that I had to adapt because I was facing a serious threat to my livelihood. I began to re-imagine my occupation and farm. I began experimenting and exploring new designs and new species. I lifted my farm off the sea bottom to avoid the impact of storm surges created by hurricanes and started to grow new mixes of restorative species. Now, after twenty-nine years of working on the oceans, I’ve remade myself as a 3D ocean farmer, growing a mix of seaweeds and shellfish for food, fuel, fertiliser, and feed.
Imagine a vertical underwater garden with hurricane-proof anchors on the edges connected by floating horizontal ropes across the surface. From these lines, kelp and other kinds of seaweeds grow vertically downward next to scallops in hanging nets that look like Japanese lanterns and mussels held in suspension in mesh socks. Staked below the vertical garden are oysters in cages and then clams buried in the sea floor.
If you look for my farm from ashore, there’s almost nothing to see, which is a good thing. Our underwater farms have a low impact aesthetically. That’s important because our oceans are beautiful pristine places, and we want to keep them that way. Because the farm is vertical, it has a small footprint. My farm used to be 100 acres; now it’s down to 20 acres, but it produces much more food than before. If you want “small is beautiful,” here it is. We want ocean agriculture to tread lightly.
Our 3D farms are designed to address three major challenges: first, to bring to the table a delicious new seafood plate in this era of overfishing and food insecurity; second, to transform fishermen into restorative ocean farmers; and third, to build the foundation for a new blue-green economy that doesn’t recreate the injustices of the old industrial economy.
As ocean farmers, we reject aquaculture’s obsession with monoculture, similar to that of land farming. Our goal is diversity. It’s a sea-basket approach: we grow two types of seaweeds, four kinds of shellfish, and we harvest salt. But with over 10,000 edible plants in the ocean, we’ve barely scratched the surface. We intend to desushify seaweed and invent a new native cuisine, not around our industrial palate of salmon and tuna but around the thousands of undiscovered ocean vegetables that are right outside our backdoor. Native seaweeds contain more vitamin C than orange juice, more calcium than milk, more protein than soybeans. And it might surprise those of you on the hunt for Omega-3s to learn that many fish do not create these heart-healthy nutrients by themselves—they consume them. By eating the plants fish eat, we get the same benefits while reducing pressure on fish stocks. So it’s time to eat like fish.
Imagine being a chef and discovering that there are thousands of vegetable species you’ve never cooked with before. It’s like discovering corn, tomatoes, and lettuce for the first time. Ocean greens such as kelp are not small boutique crops. We can grow incredible amounts of food in small areas: 25 tons of greens and 250,000 shellfish per acre in five months. If you were to create a network of our ocean farms totalling the size of just two Irelands, technically you could feed the planet.
This is zero-input food that requires no fresh water, no fertiliser, no feed, no arid land—making it hands down the
most sustainable food on the planet. And as the price of fertiliser, water, and feed goes up, zero-input food is going to be the most affordable food on the planet. The economics of it will drive us to eat ocean greens. The question is, will it be delicious food or will it be like being force-fed cod liver oil? As farmers, it’s our job to grow this new cuisine, and for chefs it’s their job to make it beautiful.
Ocean farming isn’t just about food. It’s about transforming an entire workforce, transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers. My job has never been to save the seas; it’s to figure out how the seas can save us. I say that because millions of years ago Mother Nature created two technologies designed to mitigate our harm: shellfish and seaweeds. Oysters filter up to 190 litres of water a day, pulling nitrogen, which is the cause of our oceans’ spreading dead zones, from the water column. Our farmed kelp, called the Sequoia of the sea, soaks up five times more carbon than landbased plants. Seaweeds are a powerful source of zero-input biofuel; we can produce 7,500 litres of ethanol per acre—that’s a 30 times higher yield than soybeans and five times more than corn. According to the Department of Energy, if you were to take a network of our farms equalling half the size of Ireland, you could replace all the oil in the United States.
Our farms function as storm-surge protectors, breaking up wave action to reduce the impact of hurricanes and rising tides. And they serve as artificial reefs, attracting over 150 species. Sea horses, striped bass, and grey seals come to eat, hide, and thrive on our farms. My farm used to be a barren patch of ocean, now it’s a flourishing ecosystem. As fishermen, we’re no longer pillagers, hunting the last fish. We are a new generation of climate farmers who have joined the fight to restore our planet. We’re trying to break down the seawalls that separate our land-based and ocean-based food systems. Even the best land-based farms pollute, sending nitrogen into our waterways. So we use our kelp to capture that nitrogen, turn it into liquid fertilisers, and send it back to organic farmers to grow their wonderful vegetables. When the nitrogen then runs back into Long Island Sound, we capture it again.
We are also working on new forms of livestock feeds. For example, when cattle are fed a majority kelp-based diet, there is a 90% reduction in methane output. The idea is to build a bridge between land and sea in order to close the loop between our food systems. Too often our thinking stops at the water’s edge.
Our goal is to build a just foundation for the blue-green economy. Saving the seas is not enough. There is 40% unemployment in my town. I wouldn’t be doing this work unless it created jobs for my people and opened up new opportunities for the three billion folks who depend on our oceans to make a living.
GreenWave is an organisation created to build the new ocean agricultural system and replicate it. Not by patenting or franchising, but by open-sourcing our farming model so that anybody with 20 acres and a boat and $30,000 can start his or her own farm. We replicate and scale by specifically designing our farms to require low capital costs and minimal skills.
For too long, farmers and fishermen have been caught in the beggar’s game of selling raw commodities while others soak up the profits. Too many of us are locked in the boutique food economy, with the majority of us not making an adequate living and having to hold down multiple jobs to make ends meet. Instead of repeating history we’re building infrastructure from seed to harvest to market. We’re starting non-profit hatcheries so that our farmers can access low-cost seed. We’re creating ocean seed banks so that the Monsantos of the world can’t privatise the source of our food and livelihoods.
At the same time, we’re building the country’s first farmer-owned seafood hub, which is not only a place to process, package, and ship the raw commodities we raise but also a space to leverage the unique qualities of our seaweeds.
Today, anyone can imagine a vertical underwater garden: seaweed and mussels grow on floating ropes, stacked above oyster and clam cages below. It is a farm designed to restore rather than deplete our oceans.
Sound like your thing? Log onto greenwave.org for more information.