My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer
Part memoir, part manifesto, in Eat Like a Fish (Knopf, 2019) Bren Smith—a former commercial fisherman turned restorative ocean farmer—shares a bold new vision for the future of food: seaweed.
Through tales that span from his childhood in Newfoundland to his early years on the high seas aboard commercial fishing trawlers, from pioneering new forms of ocean farming to surfing the frontiers of the food movement, Smith introduces the world of sea-based agriculture, and advocates getting ocean vegetables onto American plates. He shows how we can transform our food system while enjoying delicious, nutritious, locally grown food, and how restorative ocean farming has the potential to create millions of new jobs and protect our planet in the face of climate change, rising populations, and finite food resources.
Following is an excerpt from Eat Like a Fish. Check out Bren Smith’s popular Bioneers talk about 3-D ocean farming at the end of this article.
I am a restorative ocean farmer. It’s a trade both old and new, a job rooted in thousands of years of history, dating back to Roman times. I used to be a commercial fisherman, chasing your dinner on the high seas for a living, but now I farm twenty acres of saltwater, growing a mix of sea greens and shell fish.
I’ve paid my debt to the sea. I dropped out of high school to fish and spent too many nights in jail. My body is beat to hell: I crawl out of bed like a lobster most mornings. I’ve lost vision in half my right eye from a chemical splash in Alaska. I’m an epileptic who can’t swim, and I’m allergic to shell fish.
But every shiver of pain has been worth it. It’s a meaningful life. I’m proud to spend my days helping feed my community, and if all goes well, I will die on my boat one day. Maybe get a small obit in the town paper, letting friends know that I was taken by the ocean, that I died a proud farmer growing food underwater. That I wasn’t a tree hugger but spent my days listening to and learning from waves and weather. That I believed in building a world where we can all make a living on a living planet.
Fishermen must tell our own stories. Normally, you hear from us through the thrill-seeking writer, a Melville or Hemingway, trolling my culture for tall tales, or a Greenpeace exposé written from the high perch of environmentalism, or the foodie’s fetishization of artisanal hook and line. When fishermen don’t tell our own stories, the salt and stink of the ocean are lost: how the high seas destroy our bodies but lift our hearts, how anger and violence spawn solidarity and love. There’s more edge to fishermen—more swearing, more fights, more drugs—and we are both victims and stewards of the sea.
So this is my story. It’s been a long, blustery journey to get here, but as I look back over my shoulder, a tale of ecological redemption emerges from the fog. It begins with a high school dropout pillaging the high seas for McDonald’s and ends with a quiet ocean farmer growing sea greens and shell fish in the “urban sea” of Long Island Sound. It’s a story of a Newfoundland kid forged by violence, adrenaline, and the thrill of the hunt. It’s about the humility of being in forty-foot seas, the pride of being in the belly of a boat with thirteen others working thirty-hour shifts. About a farm destroyed by two hurricanes and reborn through blue-collar innovation. It is a story of fear and love for our changing seas.
But, most important, it’s a search for a meaningful and self-directed life, one that honors the tradition of seafaring culture but brings a new approach to feeding the country among the wandering rocks of the climate crisis and inequality.
About this Book
Writing this book was hard. My early years are fogged with drug-fueled violence and adrenaline, and I suspect drenched in over-the-shoulder romanticism. A life seen in reverse is an untidy affair. I struggled with structure. After much wrangling, I decided to weave together five concurrent strands.
First is my evolution from fisherman to ocean farmer. It was a difficult, emotional birth. I had to rewire my nervous system to new tempos of work, grow a blue thumb, hang out with odd breeds of people, even learn a new vernacular of food. It was a bumpy trip: my first brush with aquaculture left me disillusioned, and I’ve made many mistakes along the way to becoming a restorative famer, but in the end I landed on my feet.
The second strand is my rocky romance with sea greens. Like most Americans, I was skeptical about moving seaweed to the center of the dinner plate. Honestly, except for sushi, it sounded kind of gross. But I fell in love with a food lover, and she took me by the hand on a long journey of discovery. We met chefs specializing in making unappetizing food beautiful and delicious, learned about the lost culinary history of Western seaweed cuisine, and tested out kelp dishes on roofers and plumbers. In the book I’ve included a handful of recipes developed by Brooks Headley and David Santos, two of the most creative chefs in the United States, whose work points the way toward a delicious future.
The third strand is instructional: how to start your own underwater garden. It provides the basics for building a farm, seeding kelp and shell fish, and provides tips on farm maintenance and harvesting. It’s not comprehensive, of course, but it might wet your whistle.
Fourth is my journey of learning. I had a long history of struggling in school, but yearned for a way to understand my life on the ocean within a larger context. So I trace my learning curve through the rise of industrial aquaculture and the origins of restorative ocean farming to the secret strategy to convince Americans to eat kale and the emergence of the regenerative economy. There were many surprises along the way. Who knew that the Japanese consider an Englishwoman the birthing mother of nori farming and hold a festival in her honor every year? Or that a shipwrecked Irishman accidentally invented mussel cultivation while trying to net some birds to eat? Or that McDonald’s pioneered a seaweed-based burger in the 1990s?
Finally, there is my tale of passing the baton. This didn’t always go well. I swam with the sharks of Wall Street, drowned in viral media, and failed at building a new processing company. But it was worth the trip, because out of the ashes came GreenWave, a training program for new farmers, partnerships with visionary companies like Patagonia in the era of climate change, and a new generation of ocean farmers to take over the helm and release me back to my beloved farm.
You’ll also hear a lot about kelp in the book. On my farm, we’ve experimented with a few different kinds of seaweed, but sugar kelp has emerged as the most productive, delicious, and viable native species in my area. Most of the book will refer to kelp, but know that, every day, farmers, scientists, and chefs around the world are figuring out new ways to grow and use the thousands of vegetables in the ocean.
What Is Restorative Ocean Farming?
Picture my farm as a vertical underwater garden: hurricane-proof anchors on the edges connected by horizontal ropes floating six feet below the surface. From these lines, kelp and other kinds of seaweed grow vertically downward, next to scallops in hanging nets that look like Japanese lanterns and mussels held in suspension in mesh socks. On the sea floor below sit oysters in cages, and then clams buried in the mud bottom.
My crops are restorative. Shell fish and seaweeds are powerful agents of renewal. A seaweed like kelp is called the “sequoia of the sea” because it absorbs five times more carbon than land- based plants and is heralded as the culinary equivalent of the electric car. Oysters and mussels filter up to fifty gallons of water a day, removing nitrogen, a nutrient that is the root cause of the ever-expanding dead zones in the ocean. And my farm functions as a storm-surge protector and an artificial reef, both helping to protect shoreline communities and attracting more than 150 species of aquatic life, which come to hide, eat, and thrive.
Shell fish and seaweed require zero inputs—no freshwater, no fertilizers, no feed. They simply grow by soaking up ocean nutrients, making it, hands down, the most sustainable form of food production on the planet.
My farm design is open-source and replicable: just an underwater rope scaffolding that’s cheap and easy to build. All you need is $20,000, twenty acres, and a boat. And it churns out a lot of food: up to 150,000 shell fish and ten tons of seaweed per acre. Because it is low-cost to build, it can be replicated quickly. Best of all, you can make a living: one farm can net up to $90,000 to $120,000 per year.
Finally, the model is scalable. There are more than ten thousand plants in the ocean, and hundreds of varieties of shell fish. We eat only a few kinds, and we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what we can grow. Imagine being a chef and discovering that there are thousands of vegetable species you’ve never cooked with or tasted before. It’s like discovering corn, arugula, tomatoes, and lettuce for the first time. Moreover, demand for our crops is not dependent solely on food; our seaweeds can be used as fertilizers, animal feeds, even zero-input biofuels.
As ocean farmers, we can simultaneously create jobs, feed the planet, and fight climate change. According to the World Bank, a network of ocean farms equivalent to 5 percent of U.S. territorial waters can have a deep impact with a small footprint, creating fifty million direct jobs, producing protein equivalent to 2.3 trillion hamburgers, and sequestering carbon equal to the output of twenty million cars. Another study found that a network of farms totaling the size of Washington State could supply enough protein for every person living today. And farming 9 percent of the world’s oceans could generate enough biofuel to replace all current fossil-fuel energy.
Fork In the Road
In 1979, Jacques Cousteau, the father of ocean conservation, wrote: “We must plant the sea . . . using the ocean as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about—farming replacing hunting.”
Cousteau’s dream—and mine—of hundreds of ocean farms dotting our coastlines is unsettling to some environmentalists, because it represents a new vision for our seas. I’m sympathetic to these fears, especially given the history of industrial aquaculture in the 1980s. But we face a trinity of crises: the leveling of agriculture yields, skyrocketing global population, and plummeting global fish stocks.
Necessity pushes us to farm the seas, but we can embark on our journey with anticipation and joy. With ocean agriculture still in its infancy, we have an unprecedented opportunity to build a food system from the bottom up. We can avoid the mistakes of industrial agriculture and aquaculture, farm for the benefit of all, not just the few, and weave economic and social justice into the DNA of the blue-green economy, all the while capturing carbon, creating millions of jobs, and feeding the planet.
Just in time, our seas are here to save us. As Jacques Cousteau said: “The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.” Indeed.
This is our chance to reimagine our dinner plate by inventing a new “climate cuisine,” not around our industrial palate of salmon and tuna, but around the thousands of undiscovered ocean vegetables and shell fish found right outside our back door. Picture hundreds of small-scale ocean farms dotting our shorelines, surrounded by conservation zones supporting wild fisheries and breathing life back into our oceans. A Napa Valley of ocean merroirs, producing ocean vegetables with distinct flavors in every region. Ocean farms embedded into wind farms, harvesting not only wind but also food, fuel, and fertilizers.
In 1962, President Kennedy reflected on our bond with the sea:
All of us have, in our veins, the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean . . . Salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea . . . we are going back to whence we came.
The time has come to return from whence we came. What a beautiful tale this could be about the return of a prodigal nation. We were founded as a maritime nation; more of U.S. territory is located underwater than above. Every other breath we breathe comes from ocean ecosystems. If the pioneering spirit of the nineteenth century was captured by the instruction to “go west, young man,” then this book is a twenty-first century call for our generation to “head out to sea.”
Excerpted from EAT LIKE A FISH by Bren Smith. Copyright © 2019 by Bren Smith. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.