Dispatches from the Field: Long Island Sound Surprise – 3D farming, the future of EBM?

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email: tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net

Long Island Sound, on the east coast of the US, is filled with paradox. The country’s priciest estates line part of its shores, while urban and industrial blight scar other areas. To the west, the metropolis of New York City and its suburbs have transformed once fertile salt marshes into near wastelands, while on its eastern side, the Sound opens up to some of the most fertile pelagic areas in the region. Long Island waters are a playground for the yachting rich, but also support some of the oldest fishing communities in the country. This semi-enclosed sea is at once a symbol of over-use and misuse and a productive and diverse ecosystem complex.

Still, Long Island Sound seems an unlikely place to find a true ocean champion or a demonstration of futuristic EBM. Yet it was there that I had the opportunity to meet Brendan Smith, the founder of GreenWave 3D Ocean Farming and a man on his way to changing the world. Bren had been asked by a fellow pioneering aquaculturist and ocean hero – Dr. Steve Malinowski of Fishers Island Oyster Farm – to give a talk at the Henry L. Ferguson Museum on Fishers Island. Neither I nor the rest of the audience were prepared to be blown away – not only by what Bren had to say, but by what he has been able to accomplish in this complicated cauldron of ocean issues that is Long Island Sound.

Bren’s path to Long Island Sound makes for its own great story, but I would like to focus on why GreenWave’s work is a demonstration of where EBM may be heading in the future if we’re lucky. Suffice it to say that Bren was once a commercial fisher with little regard for sustainability – he admits to pillaging the oceans before his epiphany. When circumstances forced him to try his hand at being an oysterman in Long Island Sound and then two successive hurricanes wiped out his operation, Bren decided to invest his substantial energies in innovation. He anticipated that climate change would result in ever more frequent, intense storms, so he designed hurricane-proof moorings for his aquaculture lines. He then decided to scale down his farming in terms of acreage covered and scale up his production by thinking three dimensionally and maximizing the space he used. Working with ecologists and biologists, he drew up plans for maximizing what you could grow in a small volume of ocean water, in a way that would not only produce fisheries products but also deliver ecosystem services.

Creating multi-use, polyculture farms

GreenWave’s polyculture farms produce primarily macroalgae and shellfish, in combinations most suitable to the circumstances of the place and social conditions. In Long Island Sound, the optimal combination seems to be kelp, mussels, oysters, scallops, and clams. Kelp are the structural component of the farm, providing nutrients and shade and capturing excessive carbon dioxide as well as filtering the water of contaminants. In polluted areas, such as around New Haven, Connecticut, with its heavy industrial and urban inputs, kelp can be sold for biofuels, while in cleaner waters, the kelp can be sold as a healthy food product.

Today, GreenWave works with 20 small farms in various stages of development in the Long Island Sound and New England area. But small does not mean marginally productive: a single acre of 3-D farm can produce 10-30 tons of kelp a year and 250,000 pounds of shellfish. Bren is able to come to scale (as investors are demanding) not by creating enormous, single purpose aquaculture operations, but by helping to create small, multi-use polyculture farms dotted across the seascape. The farms do not exclude anyone – boaters can access the water and snorkelers can come to see the teeming life. Bren thinks of this less as farming the sea and more as restoring the sea – and helping fishers and coastal communities in the process.

Making money while also improving ecological and socio-economic outcomes

The wonder of 3-D farming is not that it simultaneously addresses overfishing, climate change, water quality, and community well-being – nor that it succeeds in delivering to market not only fisheries products but also fertilizer, animal feed, cosmetic ingredients, and biofuels. The revolution that GreenWave is spearheading is the phenomenon of the private sector catalyzing successful enterprises that deliver both ecological and socio-economic outcomes. Remember, Bren Smith is not an academic, nor a resource manager, nor an environmentalist. Yet his nascent company works with dozens of fledging aquaculturists and provides information to countless more through his commitment to open source how-to manuals. Bren is proud to say that with $20,000, and a boat, anyone can start a 3-D farm that produces quality products without the need for freshwater, fertilizer, or pesticides.

Bren’s companies are lucrative and are changing the way we think about seafood while the philanthropic branch of GreenWave works with those wishing to start farms by helping them secure both startup funding and permits and by providing technical support and seed stock. GreenWave has built a Seafood Hub in Fair Haven, Connecticut, and it is working with universities, high end restaurants, and even the technology giant Google to transform kelp and other seaweeds from additives in processed food to nutrient- and flavor-rich stars of the dinner plate.

So how is this EBM?

Okay, it's a nice story, you say, but how is this EBM? To which I would say, GreenWave is the poster child for EBM, demonstrating fully all five principles of EBM: recognizing connections, taking an ecosystem perspective, addressing cumulative impacts, managing for multiple use, and learning/adapting. The individually-designed polyculture at each 3D farm builds on the ecological connections between all the farmed elements and the environment in which the farm is situated. And by its very nature, small-scale 3D farming recognizes and capitalizes on the connection between ocean health and human well-being. Since the farms are designed to remove excessive carbon dioxide, maintain water quality, maintain fisheries production, increase biodiversity, and offer opportunities for people to enjoy cultural values, GreenWave farms are all about delivering ecosystem services.

Finally, as an innovator, Bren leads his team to experiment and learn quickly from both failures and successes. GreenWave farms, and the advice being given to aspiring 3D farmers around the US and the world, are constantly innovating and improving. Not bad for a guy who barely finished high school and spent years mindlessly overfishing, right?