Bren Smith, founder of Thimble Island Ocean Farm, dropped out of school when he was fourteen to become a fisherman. He worked in a wide variety of commercial fisheries, “from longlining for McDonald’s on the Bering Sea and ‘sliming’ in the canneries of Bristol Bay, Alaska to lobstering in Lynn, Massachusetts and aquaculture farming in Newfoundland, Canada.”
Smith loved the jobs: “The humility of being in 40-foot seas, the sense of solidarity that comes with being in the belly of a boat with 13 other people working 30-hour shifts, and a sense of meaning and pride in helping to feed my country.” No doubt it was the sense of meaning he was searching for when he left school. But over time, Smith says, he began to see a problem: “I was working at the height of the industrialization of food. We were tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, chasing fish further and further out to sea into illegal waters. I personally have thrown tens of thousands of pounds of by-catch back into the sea.” Moreover, “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 one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet, producing some of the most unhealthy food on the planet.”
When the cod stocks crashed in the early 1990s, lots of fisherman were left without jobs. Smith realized something had to be done. If they went on hunting down the last fish in the ocean, soon there would be no more fish, or fishermen.
After a long process of trial and error, and with the help of various academics and pioneers in the field of aquaculture, Smith came up with his system for “3D ocean farming.”
What is 3D ocean farming, exactly? Smith explains it like this: “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 growing local food but also biofuel and organic fertilizer.”
There seem to be endless points in favor of this system, from the fact that it allows fish stocks to replenish, and the well-known benefits of eating lower on the food chain, to the fact that kelp is full of more beneficial vitamins and minerals than almost any other food (while even chefs in top New York restaurants are going crazy over Smith’s produce). Moreover, kelp not only sequesters carbon – up to five times as much as land-based plants – it is also a “zero input” crop, meaning it requires no fertilizers, no freshwater, no antibiotics, no herbicides to grow, and the same is true of Smith’s shellfish. What’s more, the kelp is used as an organic nutrient source for local land farms.
Because Smith’s 3D farms are using kelp and animals native to his area, they’re also actually restoring habitat: filtering the water, feeding the larger fish, and rebuilding a vital ecosystem that once helped protect coastal communities from erosion and storm damage – even as storms grow more violent with the changing climate.
And don’t forget that these ocean farms also provide local communities with sustainable jobs. Ocean farmers are providing for their children, and their children’s children, instead of literally killing off the last of their livelihoods.
Greenwave, meanwhile, supports ocean health by training and supporting a new generation of ocean farmers and innovators, “working to restore ecosystems, mitigate climate change, and build a blue-green economy.” For his work with 3D ocean farming and Greenwave, Smith won the Buckminster Fuller Prize for ecological design, and has been profiled in countless publications – from The New Yorker to National Geographic to Bon Appetit.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about Smith’s 3D ocean farm is simply the beauty – both of the thing itself, with its golden kelp flowing in sunlight, and of the ideas behind it. Indeed, he calls his method of farming “an elegant solution” – a term in science and mathematics for a solution in which the maximum effect is achieved with the least effort. By that standard, Thimble Island Ocean farm is the epitome of elegant.
To learn more, you can read this article written by Bren Smith: The Seas Will Save Us: How an Army of Ocean Farmers are Starting an Economic Revolution.