Bren Smith is a former fisherman turned sustainable shellfish and seaweed farmer, turned entrepreneur. His company, Thimble Island Oyster Co. operates one of the first sustainable 3D ocean farms in the U.S. Nestled in the Thimble Islands of Long Island Sound, his 40-acre farm uses the entire water column to grow a variety of species — ranging from sugar kelp and oysters to mussels and scallops — and has emerged as a national model for hyper-local sustainable food production, ocean restoration, and economic development.
Bren started GreenWave to replicate this model throughout the U.S. and globally, both by creating new 3D farms but also by pushing the edge of what’s possible in the sea, such as embedding 3D farms in offshore wind farms. His goal is to train thousands of new ocean farmers, and we asked the ocean innovator how he intends to do so.
Hello Bren Smith, and thank you so much for taking some time for The Beam. Your farming model aims to restore ocean ecosystems, mitigate climate change, and create blue-green jobs for fishermen while ensuring healthy, local food for communities. How did you get the idea for GreenWave?
I dropped out of high school at age 14, and fished the globe on the industrial factory ships, tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls. Clearly it was unsustainable, so I went in search for ecological redemption. I ended up farming oysters in New England and farmed oysters for eight years before the storms hit: Hurricane Irene and Sandy destroyed my farm two years in a row. That’s when I realised I had to adapt and develop a farming model that was resilient to the effects of climate change. In other words, climate change was the mother of my invention.
And where does your commitment to the ocean come from?
I grew up in a little fishing community in Newfoundland, Canada. My culture and livelihood has always been tied to the sea. My goal is to die on my boat one day, so I must protect our ocean to ensure that happens.
The vertical farming system you invented can produce up to 10 tons of seaweed per acre per year, along with oysters, clams and mussels. Can you tell us how different it is from other ocean farming methods?
Industrial aquaculture relies on antibiotics, pesticides and wild fish feeds, and it’s primarily monoculture based systems.
We grow species that require zero input (no feed, no fertiliser), within a polyculture system (our farm can grow at least five different species). The species we grow provide valuable ecosystem services that work to restore the surrounding ecosystem, for example, water filtration, nitrogen uptake, and carbon sequestration. Our farm also protects the idea of ocean as “the commons” — meaning that people can still boat and fish over our farm area, it’s not privatised. We also use the entire water column, allowing us to produce more product per acre than other forms of ocean farming.
How did the fishing community react when you first started developing your project?
At first I was getting laughed off the docks. What self-respecting fisherman would want to grow sea vegetables? But over time, many have come around to the idea. They see their catches declining, chasing fewer and fewer fish further out to sea, and they realise it’s time to shift. We have, for example, an 11th generation fisherman going through the GreenWave training program. We also have requests to start farms in every coastal state in North America and over 25 countries around the world.
What impact have you already observed on the local communities where you started to implement your project?
We have helped start 15 new farms in New England and we built a hatchery and seafood hub in a local, low income neighbourhood, which created high paying jobs. We’ve seen multiple new startups spring up to buy kelp from our farmers. Our system is designed to be inexpensive to build, which allows for replicability, so you don’t have to be a major company or take out large loans to start an ocean farm.
How is the seaweed you produce contributing to “cleaning” the ocean?
It’s quite a simple process. Seaweeds soak up carbon and excess nutrients for the water column as they grow. When the seaweed is removed from the water at harvest, so are the excess nutrients.
Another way to use seaweed is to make biofuel, can you develop this idea?
In terms of avoided emissions from fossil fuels, seaweed biofuel reduction has the potential CO2 mitigation capacity of about 1,500 tons of CO2 per square kilometre per year.
We are part of a research team that was just awarded a large grant to develop the tools and technology needed to advance the use of seaweed as biofuel. The US Department of Energy projects that 10% of our fuel needed within the transportation sector could be met with 200 million dry metric tons of kelps (browns) and 300 million dry metric ton of reds (tropical) seaweeds, which could be grown on an ocean surface area totalling less than 5% of temperate waters in the US Exclusive Economic Zone.
Can we imagine this method being used along the coast of Africa in the near future?
There are over 10,000 edible sea plants and several hundreds of species. People are already farming in Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, and there are plans to begin in South Africa. We absolutely expect it to continue spreading from there.
What is the main challenge that you had to face while building GreenWave?
Permitting is always a challenge, but stakeholder engagement has proven to be incredibly important when permitting in a new location.
What insights would you like to give our readers?
1. Join the movement of solutions. This is a scary time, due to climate change, but you have the chance to join a movement of people around the world hard at work addressing this threat.
2. Scale through small scale replication. We’re focused on building networks of small, individually owned farms, not one massive farm.
3. Climate change could be the largest job creator since World War II, creating potentially up to 50 million new jobs. This is our chance to address inequality, food justice, public health, and sustainability all in one movement.
Bren Smith, GreenWave executive director and owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm, pioneered the development of restorative 3D Ocean Farming. A lifelong commercial fisherman, he was named one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “25 People Shaping the Future”, featured in TIME Magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”, and has been profiled by CNN, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and more. He is the winner of the Buckminster Fuller Prize, an Ashoka and Echoing Green Climate Fellow, and author of Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer.
This interview was published in The Beam #5 – Subscribe to The Beam Magazine to read more on the subject.
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