Farming the seas

Jang Kyun Kim and Emily Farr seeding kelp at Thimble Island Ocean Farm. (Photo: Ron Gautreau)

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Though his farm is at sea, Bren Smith likens him­self more to an arugula farmer than a fish­er­man. Bren, a former employer of mine, buys shell­fish and sea­weed seed, plants them in his farm, tends to them through­out the grow­ing sea­son, and har­vests them when they are ready to go to mar­ket. His arugula anal­ogy is more than just a quip—it high­lights an impor­tant gap in the way in which we think about food sys­tems today.

Bren is owner of Thimble Island Oyster Company and an ocean farmer. His three-acre farm is hidden six feet beneath the surface of the water a short boat ride from the coast of Stony Creek, Connecticut in the Long Island Sound. Long lines running along the surface are held in place by a series of buoys to support the oyster cages, mussel socks, scallop lanterns, and kelp fronds hanging below. When I met Bren in 2012, I was immediately drawn to the way his work lies at the nexus of food systems, climate change, nutrient and carbon cycling, and the seas.

Many of the most well-respected pioneers in food studies have yet to dive into the oceans.

As a current Master’s student studying Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, I am used to the perplexed stares I get when I tell people that I graduated with a degree in Geology & Geophysics.

As an undergraduate at Yale, I focused my studies on atmospheric science and climate change, writing my thesis on carbon cycling in inland waters. When I became involved with the Yale Sustainable Food Program, I began exploring the relationship between food systems and climate. My family lives in Maryland on the Delmarva Peninsula, a sliver of land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, so for me, some of the best food has always come from the seas.

After graduating in 2014, I started to work with GreenWave, a New Haven-based nonprofit co-founded by Bren. Its mission is to train and support a new wave of ocean farmers, and to build markets for their products. At the core of this vision is Bren’s farm in the Thimble Islands.

While the majority of our calories come from food grown on land, calories are often a deceptive measuring system. The UN estimates that the oceans provide the primary source of protein for over three billion people. Seafood— including fish, shellfish, and seaweeds—provides us with the omega-3 fatty acids we need. Seafood production contributes largely to coastal economies, with the FAO reporting that 10-12% of the global population relies on fisheries and aquaculture for its livelihood.

The farm exemplifies a method of food production that is focused on climate resilience and mitigation.

Nevertheless, it has been my experience that many of the most well-respected pioneers in food studies have yet to dive into the oceans. This certainly doesn’t mean that food coming from the oceans is always left out of the conversation, but it draws attention to our tendency to discuss land and sea food production isolation.
Perhaps we fear getting lost in the sea of confusing questions surrounding seafood. Is it better to eat wild-caught or aquacultured fish? In the proliferation of seafood eco-labels, which can you trust, and what do they all mean? Which species of fish should you eat, and which should you avoid? Finding simple answers to these questions is often difficult.

News about the oceans can also be pretty grim. Overfishing has depleted many fish stocks beyond recovery, and fishing communities across the globe suffer as climate change continues to change the rules of the game. Rising ocean temperatures cause frequent fish and shellfish die-offs, ocean acidification prevent oyster larvae from building their calcium carbonate shells in some areas, and fluctuations in phytoplankton populations may have serious impacts further up the food chain.

GreenWave challenges us to think about our relationship with the seas in a different way—one that acknowledges the oceans resilience and restoration potential, and critical importance in both food production and stability of livelihood.

Instead of taking from the sea, seaweed and shellfish farming gives back. The shellfish are suspension feeders, using their gills to filter water and remove sediment and bacteria from the water column as they feed. Seaweeds are similarly helpful because they are “bioextractive,” which means they absorb excess nutrients from agricultural and urban runoff that often cause algal blooms and dead zones. The farm infrastructure acts as an artificial reef that not only provides habitat for a wealth of ocean creatures, but also acts as a storm surge barrier during increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

The farm exemplifies a method of food production that is focused on climate resilience and mitigation.
The ocean plays a major role in climate equilibrium by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and seaweeds are carbon-sucking powerhouses, taking up the dissolved carbon dioxide as they photosynthesize. In doing so, seaweeds can help to buffer the surrounding ecosystem from ocean acidification by changing local water chemistry. (There is currently a project in the Puget Sound exploring seaweed cultivation for ocean acidification mitigation). The seaweeds Bren grows are able to withstand turbulent waters, and the shellfish are suspended above the seafloor in order to avoid getting buried in heavy storms.

Bren Smith, Emily Farr, and unidentified ocean farmer, (Photo: Ron Gautreu)
Bren Smith, Emily Farr, and Jang Kyun Kim, holding a threaded spool used to seed kelp at the farm. (Photo: Ron Gautreau)

GreenWave hopes to make this kind of restorative ocean farming the main form of aquaculture, but it also presents a way to bring seafood into the larger conversation about food systems. Seaweeds, for example, are excellent fertilizers. The Yale Sustainable Food Program has been using a liquid emulsion of Bren’s seaweeds to “fertigate” (that is, fertilize and irrigate) its seedlings for the past few years. This creates a closed loop between land and sea—nutrients from agricultural runoff that end up in the Long Island Sound are taken up by seaweed, and then reapplied to the soil to be used by vegetables. Seaweeds have also long been a component of animal feed supplements, providing micronutrients and bolstering the immune system of livestock. What’s more, seaweeds are incredibly healthy for us—packed with protein, fiber, vitamins, and micronutrients—and Bren is working with chefs in New York City to find creative ways in which to use his kelp.

Greenwave is also partnering with CitySeed to open a seafood hub in Fair Haven, which will serve as a co-operative for ocean farmers to process and market their harvest, including value-added products like seaweed fertilizer and animal feed. The seafood hub will also be a space for the community to engage with local ocean farmers, just like at the farmer’s market.

Challenges like climate change, food security, and making an adequate living are not confined to land or to sea, and organizations like GreenWave can help develop collaborative partnerships between ocean farmers, land farmers, and innovators.

Read more:

The Next Superfood (via The New Yorker)

How ‘Third Way’ Technologies Can Help Turn Tide on Climate (via Yale e360)

Bren Smith, Making Kelp and Ocean Farming our new Hope (via Climate Heroes)

Student interns get hooked on sustainable fishing (via Yale News)

Hear more:

Bren Smith: Eating Seaweed

Bren Smith: Oyster Farming