AN OLD SALT.
Ecological redemption is what Bren Smith refers to when discussing his metamorphosis from commercial fisherman to seaweed farmer. Like many from Newfoundland, Canada, Smith has salt water running through his veins. Dropping out of high school at 14, Smith headed for a life on the high seas. From cod fishing in the North Atlantic to salmon fishing in the Bering Sea, the greenhorn did it all. Working 30-hour shifts in a factory trawler, scraping the sea floor and then throwing thousands of pounds of dead bycatch back into the sea took its toll. Commercial fishing revealed itself to be “one of the most unhealthy, destructive forms of food production on the planet,” explains Smith. Repelled by the industry, the ever-hopeful Smith turned to aquaculture, believing that farming seafood would be the answer to overfishing. No dice. While the specific issues with commercial aquaculture were different, the end result was the same; low-quality food was being mass-produced at the expense of our environment. Completely disillusioned, Smith returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a law degree from Cornell University. Seeking a sustainable way to work the seas, Smith dropped anchor in coastal Connecticut after learning of a program that was leasing shellfishing grounds to young fishermen. On this 20-acre lease nestled within the Thimble Islands, a small archipelago of islands in Long Island Sound, Smith began growing oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. He started a community-supported fishery program, supplying customers with sustainably grown shellfish. Everything was hunky-dory until Hurricane Irene roared up the East Coast, turning his cages of oysters into a mud-suffocated loss. Undeterred, he started over the following season only to have Hurricane Sandy create worse havoc, fouling his equipment and suffocating his catch once again. A fisherman can only mend his nets so many times; Smith knew this, so he turned to an idea that could change man’s relationship to the sea, restore ecosystems and fishing communities and grow healthy food: 3-D ocean farming.
IT’S JUST ROPES AND BUOYS.
Smith’s three-dimensional ocean farm encompasses approximately 20 acres in Long Island Sound, just off the coast of Branford, Connecticut. A ride along this picturesque coastline would reveal nothing more to the casual observer than specifically placed mooring buoys. The true beauty of Smith’s farm lies below the waterline. Long ropes create a grid-like pattern just below the surface of the water. Smith seeds a variety of kelp, Laminaria digitata, along these ropes in late December. Kelp grows very quickly in the cool waters of the sound, and Smith’s crop is fully harvested by the end of June. From these ropes, Smith also hangs long mesh tubes (socks) for growing mussels and lantern nets for growing scallops. Oysters and clams grow in cages on muddy sea floor. The kelp creates a virtual undersea rainforest, attracting sea life that was heretofore in decline and, along with the shellfish, filtering out excess nitrogen and carbon from the water, thereby improving the overall quality of the water. Smith has been setting out catch-and-release fish traps to count the number and varieties of fish that have returned to the grounds. Fish stocks such as striped bass, blue fish, blue claw crabs and even seahorses are being replenished. “The Long Island Sound just doesn’t have enough areas for creatures to hide, nibble and spawn,” explains Smith. Thimble Island Oyster Farm is re-creating an ecosystem and restoring biodiversity to the area. As the wife of a Long Island Sound bayman, my life is intrinsically rooted to water. Full-time baymen and lobstermen have become a dwindling breed. Recurring lobster die-offs, the ever rising price of fuel, coupled with the declining market price for shellfish has made it increasingly more challenging to carve out a living in our local waters. The potential for these hardworking and intrepid men and women who work our waters to reinvent themselves, and their livelihoods, is promising indeed.
When harvesting, Smith and his crew work quickly; kelp maintains its optimal freshness for about 45 minutes. Some of the kelp is packed in coolers and delivered fresh. Most of the kelp harvest heads directly to the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center (BRASTEC), where local students cut the kelp into long noodles. The kelp is then blanched, bagged and flash-frozen. “After blanching, the kelp turns a brilliant green. It holds up to freezing quite well, comes out of the freezer and stays al dente beautifully,” assures Smith. Smith’s kelp also heads to local farms where it is cherished as an organic fertilizer.
Short and sweet, Smith wants us to eat like a fish. “Fish don’t make omega-3s, they consume them. So, by eating like a fish, consumers get the same benefits while reducing pressure on our dwindling fish stocks,” he points out. “Seaweed and kelp are nutritional powerhouses,” proclaims Smith. “Sea vegetables in general are known to have more iron than red meat, more vitamin C than citrus fruit and more vitamin D than milk.” Kelp is also high in iodine, magnesium, potassium and melatonin; it is gluten-free, low in calories, carbohydrates and fat and aids in the digestion of flatulence-causing sugars. It all makes sense.
Widely cultivated and consumed in Asia, kelp was also prized by Native Americans and European settlers as both a readily available and nutritious food source and as a fertilizer. When food was scarce during the Depression, kelp helped stave off starvation. In the late 1980s, America became a sushi nation and kelp found a new audience. Americans taste for kelp has risen right along with our adoption of Asian culinary traditions. Almost all of the kelp consumed in this country is imported, much of it from Japan. Kelp’s ability to absorb excess nitrogen and carbon from the water also renders it highly capable of absorbing radioactive toxins from the coastal waters off Fukushima, Japan. The “eat local” mantra was never more important.
Extremely mild in flavor with just a touch of ocean saltiness, kelp is a versatile component in the kitchen. “Once chefs begin to de-sushify kelp, it will find itself onto American plates,” explains Smith. It is already starting to appear on the menus of restaurants such as Acme, Morimoto, Louro and il Buco in New York City. One can only expect that it will just be a matter of time before regional chefs become intrigued with kelp and add it to their menus. Pickled kelp stems, kelp linguine (all it needs is a little sauce), kelp butter, kelp ice cream and even kelp cocktails; the options are as boundless as the chef’s imagination. “The sky’s the limit,” muses Smith, invoking a little bit of Jacques Cousteau and a little bit of Pete Seeger. “If chefs can make caterpillars and cockroaches edible, kelp is a no-brainer. Give me five years and I’ll make kelp the new kale.” In addition to making inroads in high-end kitchens, Smith is also working with a local Whole Foods Market, developing a line of frozen kelp noodle dishes.
Smith is undeniably a kelp evangelist. “This is such an unexplored idea with not much activity and an incredible amount of potential,” relates Smith. He talks of starting a nonprofit to train new ocean farmers. He also broaches the notion of kelp-fed beef and lamb, “chefs and farmers in England and Ireland praise the quality of meat that comes from animals whose diet is supplemented with kelp. It’s on the menus; kelp-fed beef.” Evangelizing further, “It is a huge dream to take offshore wind farms and embed 3-D ocean farms. Food, fertilizer, biofuel, wind-fuel would be a really efficient use of space. That would be a game changer, but probably above my pay grade.”
While not wanting to become the “King of Kelp,” requests for his expertise have been flooding his e-mail box. Fishing communities from Chesapeake Bay and Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Bermuda, Mexico and even Romania seek his help, and Smith is more than willing to roll up his sleeves and lend a hand. He envisions thousands of 3-D ocean farms based on his model. “My fear is that if I am the only ocean farmer doing this in 10 years, then I will have failed,” he admits. Negotiating the thickets of permits and licenses can be daunting but, as Smith discovered, definitely doable. Edible kelp can only be farmed in areas that are also certified for shellfish farming and must meet the same water quality standards. “The water is tested weekly. You wish your arugula was as carefully handled and regulated as our oysters and kelp,” proclaims Smith, secure in the knowledge that he has dotted all his “i’s”.
“I come from Newfoundland where the fish were decimated; nothing left. There is 80 percent un-employment. In my heart I want to find new jobs for these fishermen, for a new generation of people who want to work on the water in jobs that are sustainable and not tied to overfishing. I want to reinvent the fisherman and help transition into a blue-green economy where folks still get to work on the water. They still get to feed people and do all the things they love as a fishing community.”
Bren Smith has transitioned from The Deadliest Catch to the least-deadliest catch. “Fishermen don’t grow veggies, that seems kind of wimpy,” he laughs, clearly A-OK with the notion that his fellow commercial fishermen may deem him crazy.
Clearly, what this world needs is just this sort of blue-sky thinking kind of crazy.