Bren Smith, Ocean Farming – The Wave of the Future
Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis
Bren Smith hails from a tiny outpost in Newfoundland where most of the 970 inhabitants work in the fishing industries. So it wasn’t that unusual at age 14 he should leave home to pursue a life of adventure on the high seas. But what does make his story unique is how he used those experiences decades later to pioneer a new kind of aquaculture.
Smith fished out of Gloucester, the Bering Sea, and the Grand Banks, catching everything from tuna to lobster to cod to crab. It was the heyday of the McDonald’s fish sandwich and Gordon’s fish sticks, and a lot of what he caught ended up in these mass markets.
He worked at the height of the commercial fishing industry before any credence was given to environmental impact. Trawler nets caused significant damage, as did overfishing. As the nets drag across the bottom, it not only tears up entire ecosystems, but also leaves thousands of dead fish and sea mammals in its wake.
“That was the state of the industry then. We knew we were pillaging, but even so, it was the best days of my life. I miss them still. I miss the camaraderie, being at sea for three months, the 20-30 hour shifts, the high skill, chasing things and being a hunter, and the humility of being at sea. It was really rewarding,” says Smith. “There are certain jobs you get a real sense of meaning from, and I was proud to help feed the country. I think land-based farmers are the same way. There are certain professions that are more than just a job, but a cultural identity.”
Overfishing also depleted the fish stocks, especially cod. Global fleets appeared at the international waterline off Newfoundland waiting for the cod to pass. These vessels were not the small family run fishing boats, but floating factories, hundreds of feet in length with the ability to process and freeze the fish on site.
Smith’s “wake up call” came in 1992 when the cod stocks crashed in Newfoundland. The government declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery for the first time in 500 years. The Canadian government began buying back fishing licenses to take offline. Over 35,000 fishers and fish plant employees were suddenly out of work; entire families were ejected from the only lives they had ever known.
“Canneries closed and boats were beached. You build an economy and a culture for generations; and it gets wiped out overnight with one environmental disaster,” says Smith. “It really shifted the politics of Newfoundland because there wasn’t any process to work with the fishermen, just massive buyouts. In the United States they created a quota system. You are allowed to catch a certain amount, but with no limit on how many quotas there are, so commodities and Wall Street companies with no relationship to fishing, bought them up. For example, forty percent of the Peruvian fish docks are owned by the second largest private equity firm on Wall Street.”
Smith, like others of his generation, was determined to find a sustainable way. He began salmon farming in Newfoundland but soon discovered it was just a new type of environmental destruction.
“We were pumping the fish full of pesticides and antibiotics and packing them so they could barely swim. Their feces created a lot of pollution, and they tasted terrible. It was neither fish nor food, “ he says.
Smith made his way to Branford, Connecticut because by chance, for the first time in 150 years, the shell fishing grounds were opened up to attract younger fishermen back into the industry.
“I started oyster fishing knowing nothing about it and not realizing it is farming,” says he.
This started the wheels turning, and he soon invented a process he calls Vertical Ocean Farming. It’s similar to aquaculture except instead of growing salmon and tuna, species people traditionally eat, he grows what is native to the area.
“We need to grow what the ocean can provide within its natural limits and help remake and rethink the seafood dinner plate based on sustainability,” says Smith.
It is simple and affordable. A farm can be set up within a week with $20,000 and a boat. Smith leases 20 acres and grows kelp, mussels, oysters, scallops, and clams and harvests salt through his company, Thimble Island Oysters. He uses hurricane- proof mooring buoys which are tethered to the sea floor with floating horizontal long lines at the surface. The same gear is used to farm all the species. The farms are also designed with the recreational boater in mind who can pass over them without disturbing them. But there are other benefits as well. Oysters soak up nitrogen, and kelp soaks up carbon, which has been problematic in our waterways. The farms act as reefs attracting fish and seals and as storm surge protectors; and jobs are being created.
Smith goes out daily with farm manager, Ron Gautreau to check the progress. The farm yields about 10 pounds of kelp per acre and roughly 200,000 shellfish. Smith does a rotational crop just like on land, so if all his oysters fail, he can still sell mussels.
But he has found that seaweed will be key to our future survival. It is fast growing and is chock full of vitamins, omega threes, and protein. It can be turned into animal feed, and it reduces methane production by ninety percent in cattle. It can be used to make bio fuel, beer, fertilizer, and cosmetics which can become other sources of revenue for fisherman.
“In time it will be the cheapest food on the planet. It doesn’t require fresh water, fertilizer, or land use. All the things that make land-based farming expensive especially with droughts,” Smith says.
Smith is creating a new kind of ocean vegetarianism where seaweed becomes commonplace to the palette and dinner plate. There are more than 10,000 edible varieties, but we only consume a fraction. The goal is to make kelp the new kale, reduce the pressure on the fish stocks, and craft undiscovered cuisine from it like pasta noodles.
The vertical farming model is available through open source so anybody can learn how to do it, but Smith helps others get their farms off the ground and works in partnership with UConn, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Charlie Yarish, a professor at UConn and the world’s expert on seaweeds. He also works with the Sound School to train young people in this new industry whom he hopes will also develop a taste for these new flavors.
Smith also supports the aquatic community with his NGO Green Wave that is building the first Seafood Hub in Connecticut to “aggregate, process, and market ocean farm products; serve as a job-creator and engine for local economic development in an underserved region; provide subsidized processing and storage infrastructure for ocean farmers and fishers; develop value-added products ranging from kelp noodles and sea salt to organic fertilizers and animal feed, and create a stable and above-market price structure for farmer co-op members. The Hub also hosts a Community Supported Fisheries program, supports regional climate and ecosystem research, and incubates new ventures. Most importantly, it’s a community space for job training, cooking classes, apprenticeship programs, and more.”
But the sea still pulses through Smith’s veins; and in time, he wants to get back to the waterways and leave behind this role that has chosen him.
“I don’t want to be that pioneer. I will have succeeded if there are tons of people representing the industry, innovating way past me. If ten years from now I can disappear and be quietly farming again, I will have succeeded,” he says.