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With 3D Ocean Farming, We Can Eat Sustainably While Restoring Our Oceans

Bren Smith | Image credit: Greenwave

How does one move from a career as a commercial fisherman to becoming the winner of the 2015 Fuller Challenge, one of the most prestigious sustainability prizes? 

Bren Smith, founder of Thimble Island Ocean Farm and executive director of the non-profit GreenWave, snagged the US$100,000 prize for his 3D ocean-farming model, which aims to address the range of most pressing sustainability issues in the fishing industry: degradation of marine ecosystems, climate change mitigation and resilience, depleting fish stocks, and a decline in local fisherman jobs.

Smith, now based in Connecticut, worked in the commercial fishing industry for nearly two decades before he turned to investing his time in developing more sustainable fishing solutions. Was there a distinctive turning point when he realised things needed to change?

“The change of direction sprang from necessity, as I was a former fisherman in need of a new livelihood that could no longer come from overfished waters,” Smith explained in a recent interview. “After dropping out of school aged 14 and working on fishing boats in the height of commercial fishing for nearly 20 years (catching McDonald’s cod for many of them), I was launched on a search for sustainability when the cod stocks crashed in the ‘90s and I was left without a job.”

Smith’s 3D ocean-farming model is designed to address a multitude of sustainability challenges — focused not only on reducing environmental impact but also restoring our oceans. In contrast to shallow, large-scale farming methods, the 3D model applies a vertical approach: seaweed and mussels grow on floating ropes, with oyster and clam cages underneath. Our agricultural systems are typically resource-intensive, relying on land, water, fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide inputs. Smith’s model turns this on its head: It cultivates only restorative crops (such as oysters and seaweed), yielding food, animal feed, biofuels and fertilizers.

I asked Smith when he first got the idea for this new model, and how has it has manifested since then.

“I farmed shellfish for several years but when I was hit by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, I was forced to adapt my farm model to withstand such extreme weather patterns,” he explained. “I began growing in new ways and added different species to diversify — that included kelp. It was a chance to adapt but also to make sure that our new food production addresses crises ranging from climate change to job creation.”

Stemming from a need to both mitigate and adapt to our sustainability challenges, the GreenWave model boasts a range of environmental benefits:

  • Carbon sequestration: kelp — a species of seaweed sometimes called “the rainforest of the sea” — has the potential to absorb as much as five times the amount of carbon as terrestrial vegetation, making it an effective carbon sink.
  • Zero-input farming: the farms require no land, freshwater or chemical inputs, making the model an ideal solution for sustainable food and protein production.
  • Water quality: nitrogen run-off from agricultural lands is a growing threat to aquatic ecosystem balance, leading to eutrophication and coastal “dead-zones.” Kelp and shellfish need nitrogen to grow and are effective water filters, with each farm sequestering up to 164 kilograms of nitrogen per year. GreenWave convert this nitrogen into fertilizer for local farmers, closing the nutrient resource loop.
  • Biofuel: biofuel production from terrestrial crops is well-established, however only a few aquatic biofuels are yet to reach commercialisation. The GreenWave team is working with engineers to develop an effective method for kelp biofuel production.
  • Ecosystem restoration and resilience: years of overfishing have left large patches of once-thriving ocean waters barren. GreenWave farms, comprising of longlines and cages provide an artificial reef habitat, promoting the restoration of depleted ecosystems. Not only do they restore, but also protect habitats from extreme weather events using hurricane-proof anchors.

As Smith acknowledges, the model additionally provides important social benefits. The GreenWave model has been created as an open source, meaning that is free for anyone to replicate. The company is also developing a new generation of ocean farmers, providing them with grants; low-cost seed, equipment and gear; and two years of training. Even better, over the next five years, GreenWave has pledged to purchase 80 percent of trained farmers’ crops at triple the market rate (which are then sold on to local restaurants). It’s a necessary push in restoring a fishing industry in which local fisherman can make a living.

Smith triumphed from a field of 400 entries (spanning 136 countries) to win the 2015 Fuller Challenge for his 3D fishing model. The prize, launched by the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI), is aimed at rewarding whole-system approaches in addressing some of our most pressing sustainability challenges.

How does Smith plan on investing the US$100,000 prize money?

“We are replicating and scaling our model through our Farm Startup and Farmer Apprenticeship Program, through which we provide support with permitting, hands-on training, and guaranteed purchasing so that anyone with a boat and US$20,000 can start a farm,” he replied. “In addition to the farmer training program, we're using the BFI prize to invest in infrastructure, including hatcheries and the country's first-ever Seafood Hub.”

Often our sustainability solutions fall victim to challenging trade-offs — trying to address one issue can sometime aggravate another. Once again, the GreenWave model has shown that the most promising solutions — those likely to succeed because they just make good environmental, social and business sense — are those that apply a simple, integrated, systems-focused approach. Often, these solutions are best developed from individuals who have seen and understood the underlying issues firsthand.

Where does Smith see GreenWave heading?

“We aim to support the development of hundreds of farms dotting our coastlines, clustered around a seafood hub or distribution center, surrounded by conservation zones,” he explained. “These networks of farms can have a major global impact on our increasingly insecure energy and food systems, and the vitality and resilience of our oceans.”


Hannah Ritchie is a graduate in Environmental Geoscience from the University of Edinburgh. She is now working towards an MSc in Carbon Management, with an interest developing a fair and equal model for working towards a sustainable future across the… [Read more about Hannah Ritchie]


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