Ecological Redemption, Underwater Gardens, and Moby Dick: Q+A with Ocean Hero Finalist Bren Smith
BY: Justine Sullivan
Bren Smith – Stony Creek, CT.
After more than a decade of witnessing damaging and destructive fishing practices as a commercial fisherman from Gloucester, MA to Alaska’s Bering Sea, Bren started the innovative Thimble Island Oyster Company in order to become a restorative ocean farmer. His farm spans 20 acres in the Long Island Sound and utilizes a unique 3D model of ocean farming: seaweed and mussels are grown on floating ropes stacked above oyster and clam cages, which together restore habitat, improve water quality and cycle carbon through the ecosystem.
What is your contribution to ocean conservation?
Imagine a vertical underwater garden: seaweed and mussels grow on floating ropes, stacked above oyster and clam cages below. Imagine a farm designed to restore rather than deplete our oceans; a farm designed to mitigate climate change. I’m doing it and here’s how:
The kelp I grow – known as the “rainforest of the sea” – absorbs five times more carbon than land-based plants. My 20-acre farm alone has the potential to remove 134 tons of carbon a year…Shellfish and seaweed act as filters, drawing out nitrogen. Kelp and oysters need nitrogen to grow, so our farm – soaking up to 164 kg of nitrogen a year – is vital for restoring water quality…Because my gear is 3D, my farm has a very small footprint while functioning as an artificial reef, attracting 150 species that come to hide, eat, and thrive. After a decade of farming, what was once a barren patch of ocean is now a robust ecosystem.
What inspired you to get involved in ocean conservation?
My story is one of ecological redemption. As age 14, I dropped out of high school and headed out to sea. I worked cod and crab boats from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Alaska’s Bering Sea…I worked 30-hour shifts on factory trawlers scraping the seafloor, ripping up entire ecosystems – I pillaged the oceans. But as a young fisherman with salt in the veins, the destruction was too much to bear, so I headed off to try my hand at aquaculture on the large salmon farms in Canada. Aquaculture was to be the answer to overfishing, but instead of sustainability, we grew low-quality food, while polluting, caulking fish full of antibiotics.
Disillusioned with the fishing industry, I went searching for a sustainable way to work the seas while leaving the ocean in a better place. My journey took me to Long Island Sound where there was a program to lease shellfishing grounds to young fishermen under 40. I leased 20 acres, started oysters, and slowly, with many experiments and failures, transitioned the farm into the first multi-species sustainable 3-D ocean farms in the country.
What is one piece of advice someone has given you that has aided your efforts?
Solutions are built on a foundation of repeated failure. I learned that from a dear friend who tracks the effects of climate change in the Arctic. It changed my view of farming. I had major shellfish die-offs on three different years, but this advice helped me understand that failure is the root of all invention.
What is the one thing you could recommend that people can do every day to help protect the oceans?
Use fewer fertilizers and pesticides on their lawns and gardens in order to reduce nitrogen pollution.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to be an Ocean Hero?
Don’t be afraid to fail…a lot.
Favorite Ocean Hero?
Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fishes. He is the most insightful thinker on ocean sustainability today.
Inspired by Bren Smith? Vote for him to be a 2013 Ocean Hero!