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The Seas Will Save Us: How an Army of Ocean Farmers are Starting an Economic Revolution

Author: Bren Smith

I’m a fisherman who dropped out of high school in 1986 at the age of 14. Over my lifetime, I’ve spent many nights in jail. I’m an epileptic. I’m asthmatic. I don’t even know how to swim. This is my story. It’s a story of ecological redemption.

I was born and raised in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, a little fishing village with 14 salt-box houses painted in greens, blues, and reds so that fishermen could find their way home in the fog. At age 14 I left school and headed out to sea. I fished the Georges Banks and the Grand Banks for tuna and lobster, then headed to the Bering Sea, where I fished cod and crab. The trouble was 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.

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. But God how I loved that job! 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. I miss those days so, so much.

But then in the early 1990s the cod stocks crashed back home: thousands of fishermen thrown out of work, boats beached, canneries shuttered. This situation created a split in the industry: the captains of industry, who wanted to fish the last fish, were thinking 10 years down the road, but there was a younger generation of us thinking 50 years out. We wanted to make our living on the ocean. I want to die on my boat one day — that’s my measure of success.

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Bren Smith’s Vertical Ocean Pasture, The Wave Of Future Farming

Author: Linnea Covington

In Food Republic’s new series Game Changers, we take a close look at a few of the individuals working to change the way we view the food industry. First up is fisherman and vertical farmer Bren Smith.

Why would you plant acres of land when you can build a farm of the same size vertically in the sea? At least, that’s one of the questions that got fisherman Bren Smith of Thimble Island Oyster Co. thinking. After all, you don’t need fresh water, land or fertilizer to make his oysters, mussels, scallops and various types of kelp grow. So, with these things in mind, he created the first vertical farm in the country.

“The idea was to just grow things that are restorative and grow naturally in the water, which means they have zero impact,” says Smith, who runs his 40-acre farm off the Long Island Sound. “The beautiful thing about farming in the ocean is you can do multiple species, you aren’t fighting gravity, you can use the whole column and it’s very affordable.”

Though Smith has been involved in green farming since he started his company 13 years ago, the vertical approach came into practice in the last few years after hurricanes Irene and Sandy wiped out his original farm. After that, Smith got together with seaweed expert Charles Yarish of the University of Connecticut and redid his operation. It turned out to be so successful that he plans on replicating it soon in five different areas.

A vertical farm is an organized stretch of water that grows mollusks and seaweed in column form.

But what is vertical farming exactly? Simple. A vertical farm — also called a 3D ocean farm — is an organized stretch of water that grows certain mollusks and seaweed in a column, from the top to the sea floor. To make this method even more desirable, the species that inhabit these “rows” help restore the ocean by keeping it clean, healthy and more habitable to other sea creatures.

 

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