Ocean farming goes in a new direction
BRANFORD, Conn. — Bren Smith’s “vertical ocean farm” doesn’t look very impressive — just some black and white buoys bobbing in the waves off Long Island Sound’s Thimble Islands.
But he’s certain that what lies a few feet beneath those waters can change the way the world raises and eats food.
Those buoys are anchoring and keeping afloat a grid of ropes hanging about 6 feet below the surface of the Sound, well above the seabed. The ropes support tons of sugar kelp and crates and bags of oysters, mussels and scallops that Smith and his two co- workers tend and harvest year- round.
Smith has plans to help create f ive new “vertical ocean farms” a year over the next f ive years in southern New England. Nine new ocean farms based on his system are already in the works in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and on Peconic Bay at the tip of Long Island.
“When I started, they were laughing me off the wa- ter,” Smith said recently of other shellfishermen.
No one’s laughing anymore.
Smith has been awarded a $ 100,000 grant for winning the Fuller Challenge, an international competition financed by the Buckminster Fuller Institute to promote ideas in environmental sustainability. His nonprofit organization, GreenWave, has received grants from multiple federal agencies and private donations.
The Newfoundland native is convinced his new system of sustainable ocean agriculture can produce healthful, pollution- free, environmentally beneficial food for a planet in deep climate trouble.
Now 43, Smith said he never expected to end up as a self- described “kelp farmer” along Connecticut’s shoreline. “It’s the most boring job I’ve ever had,” he said.
He has worked on boats out of Alaska, hunting for cod and crab, and from New England ports. But when wild f ish stocks began to crash, he began looking for a sustainable way to make a living on the water.
Smith ended up in Connecticut, leasing shellfish beds from the state, harvesting oysters the same way all of the other shellfishing companies were doing it. Then came Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012, massive storms that buried Smith’s shellfish beds under tons of mud, sand and debris.
Smith said he slowly realized the best way to keep his aquaculture operation from being ruined by the next giant storm was to lift it off the seafloor. “We moved it off the bottom,” he said, by creating hurricane- proof anchors for the buoys that hold his farm together.
“We went 3- D,” Smith added with a smile.
He also got into kelp farming, combining it with his elevated shellfishing scheme.
Mussels and scallops hang below the seaweed, crates of oysters hang below those, and clams thrive in the mud of the seabed. The system is so productive that Smith is now using only about 3 of the 20 acres of shellfishing beds he leases from the state.
BREN SMITH, pictured off Branford, Conn., says his vertical system of raising shellf ish and kelp benefits the planet as well as consumers at a crucial time.