Toward Zero-Impact Ocean Farming?


“My job is not to save the seas; my job is to figure out how they can save us”
– Bren Smith

For decades now, ecologists have been battling reef deterioration, pollution and overfishing… but what if the solution came from the ocean itself? This is what Bren Smith, founder of the NGO GreenWave, is banking on. His ocean farm, which recently won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge , is a sustainable food source that also actively restores marine ecosystems.


A reformed overfisher

Bren Smith was just 14 when he dropped out of school to work on a trawler. He spent 20 years sailing around on commercial boats that dragged the ocean floor from the Bering Sea to the coast of New England. In the late 1990s, as cod was growing scarce, Bren Smith found himself unemployed, like many of his counterparts. Driven by necessity, he first went into shellfish farming, but when Hurricanes Irene and Sandy hit his operation, it became urgent for him to find a sustainable farming model that could not only adapt to climate change, but also reduce its impact on the environment.

Green waves 

Some crises provide their own solutions. By studying marine ecosystems, Bren Smith discovered the benefits of kelp, the “Sequoia of the sea.” This seaweed, which is an excellent food, also absorbs up to five times more CO2 than land-based plants. So Bren started thinking about a system in which this seaweed could be cultivated in synergy with certain shellfish. Oysters, for example, can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing the nitrogen behind the acidification that transforms reefs into dead zones. In 2013, to fulfill his green designs, he formed a company, Thimble Island Ocean Farm, and the NGO GreenWave.

A 3D farm

Lying on a 40-acre plot in Long Island Sound, close to New Haven, Connecticut, his ocean farm has adopted a vertical approach: on the surface, seaweed and mussels grow on floating ropes; below them, oysters and clams in cages flourish away from the foliage. The 3D farm is part of a virtuous production cycle that gives as much as it takes. But GreenWave’s ambitions go even further than zero-impact farming: they offer a new, resilient circular development model.

Rebalancing the food chain

GreenWave wants to promote kelp as the new “super food.” There are more than 10,000 edible varieties of seaweed in our oceans. For Bren Smith, these delicious, nutrient-rich seaweeds provide a unique opportunity to reduce pressure on fish stocks by diversifying our diets. For their part, underwater gardens need no fertilizer, fresh water or antibiotics and represent an environmentally-friendly agricultural production mode.

Creating a blue-green economy

GreenWave is an open-source project. To help other entrepreneurs embark on blue farming, Bren Smith created the Farm Startup Program, through which he shares his experience online and in practice, through an apprenticeship course, a resource center and a social incubator. With the Fuller Prize money, Bren Smith plans to launch 100 new farms this year, linked to a Seafood Hub and a dedicated distribution center. A new 3D farm takes just US$20,000 in seed money, plus a boat and some basic technical skills. By encouraging a return to smaller structures and virtuous know-how, the entrepreneur hopes to revitalize a sector that has been devastated by unemployment.

Repopulating reefs

Overfishing has drained entire sections of the US coastline. With its 3D farms, GreenWave plans to build up artificial reefs that will serve as barriers against storms and as shelter for marine wildlife. Eventually, Bren Smith is counting on the development of these crops to mitigate the local effects of climate change by trapping carbon and nitrogen in the seaweed. Kelp also offers additional benefits: it makes a powerful fertilizer and can also be used as biofuel.

This summer, those who are lucky enough to live in Connecticut will be able to spend a morning each month learning underwater gardening at the Stony Creek docks in Branford. Volunteers will be given a seaweed bed to look after, plus shellfish ropes. They will then be able to sample the fruits of their labor. Online registration will open in May 2016. So take note, all you gourmets with blue fingers!

Learn more on their website

Photo © Pixabay

One Response to Toward Zero-Impact Ocean Farming?

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