Spend any time speaking with fisherman-turned-local-seaweed-farmer Bren Smith and he’ll surely plant two ideas in your head. First, he’ll make a clear case that Connecticut has become the epicenter of the swiftly growing seaweed farming movement on the East Coast, if not the country. Second, he’ll convince you that we should stop calling it seaweed.
“One of the most exciting things about the farming of sea greens, as I like to call it, is that it’s reviving a core industry that goes back for centuries and generations in Connecticut, namely making a living from the water, but with an added twist,” says Smith, who is considered the Johnny Appleseed of the new push for seaweed farming, both because of his passion for the field and due to the fact that he’s leading so many others to join him in growing it, cooking with it, eating it and finding other new ways to use it.
“And who would ever have thought that Connecticut would be the ground zero for both ocean farming and for what I expect to be a sea greens revolution, but it is, and it’s growing more and more into that role every day,” Smith says.
There are certainly signs that Smith is not alone in seeing seaweed farming as a wave of the future, with even bigger impacts to come. In addition to the increasing number of seaweed farms launched in the past few years in Connecticut alone, Smith’s innovative approach to ocean farming was recently recognized by both Time and Rolling Stone magazines as inventions that will help shape the future.
One part of getting more people to appreciate the myriad ecological, economic and nutritional benefits of seaweed, Smith says, is to get people to drop the name “seaweed.”
“I think the ‘weed’ in seaweed turns people off, because we generally think of weeds as a problem, a useless pest, if you will,” Smith says, speaking by phone from the 1870s oyster captain’s home he shares with his wife in the Fair Haven section of New Haven. “The exact opposite is true, so I try to get people to call it sea greens, which is a much more fitting name for all the positive stuff it does and can be used for.”
As a food, kelp and other sea greens are packed with nutrients, low in calories and carbs, and extremely versatile in how it can be incorporated into a meal — far more than as the paper-like wrap in sushi most Americans associate seaweed with. It can also be turned into biofuel, and used as organic fertilizer, as is the case with some of Smith’s annual crop at a farm operated by Yale University. It’s the second-fastest-growing plant in the world, yielding about 25 tons per acre of aquatic farmland every six months, he says.
These days, Smith happily has his sea-weathered hands full at the helm of his own underwater farm in 20 acres of water he leases from the town of Branford, and as the executive director of GreenWave, a nonprofit based in New Haven that promotes sustainable ocean farming, mitigates climate change and creates jobs. With assistance and support from GreenWave, eight new kelp farms have been established in Connecticut waters over the past two years, with plans in the works for about 10 more in Long Island Sound.
Smith’s operations include a kelp-processing plant in eastern New Haven that makes kelp noodles and other foods from freshly harvested sea greens and distributes them to an expanding number of restaurants in Connecticut and New York City. “For the most part, we grow sugar kelp, which has a unique, mild, slightly sweet flavor and when it’s blanched in hot water, turns a really beautiful, appealing green,” Smith says. “Right now, the demand for it is about 10 times what we’re able to grow. Kelp is the next kale. Ten years ago, nobody really heard of kale or was cooking with it or eating it, and now it’s in so many homes and all over restaurant menus. That’s what’s happening now with kelp.”
Smith’s personal journey to becoming a kelp farmer is a virtual microcosm of the long history and sudden crash of commercial fishing in Long Island Sound. “Like many, many fishermen in Connecticut and beyond, I thought I would spend my entire life chasing and catching fish,” says Smith, who three decades ago dropped out of high school in his native Newfoundland to take a job on a fishing boat, eventually traveling around the globe in that profession. “But then because of overfishing, climate change and other factors, the ability to make a living by fishing just dried up. What happened to me happened to most fishermen, and eventually to the entire industry as we knew it.”
Smith’s interest in finding a new way to make a living on the water eventually led him to Connecticut, where he became a shellfish farmer. Then came the one-two punch of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and, as was the case with most Connecticut shellfish farmers, Smith’s crops of oysters, scallops, mussels and clams were decimated, and most of his equipment was lost.
“I was at rock bottom again, but I still felt there was some way to adapt and make a living on the water, and this time in a way that included both sustainability and resiliency,” Smith says. “My search led me to the work of Dr. Charles Yarish, a globally recognized expert in seaweed and seaweed farming at the University of Connecticut-Stamford, and I sort of intertwined his groundbreaking research with some of my ideas for sustainable underwater farming and came up with the 3D model.”
The innovative 3D model for ocean farming employs hurricane-resistant anchors on the seafloor at the edges of the farm, connecting with ropes to buoys on the water’s surface. Another rope runs horizontally about eight feet below the surface. The kelp is grown on ropes hanging down off the horizontal rope, creating a vertical growing space. “Next to the kelp, we’re growing scallops and mussels, also vertically, and then further down, we have oysters in cages, and then clams actually down in the mud,” Smith explains. “The vertical-water-column approach reduces the farm’s footprint, and the multiple species create a diversity so that a farmer is protected should anything cause one of those crops to falter or fail in a given season.”
Robert Granfield, a second-generation commercial fisherman who became a clam farmer in 1998 when the region’s fish supply began to tank, seeded his first crop of kelp in the waters off Milford this December with some guidance and assistance from GreenWave. “I wanted to diversify, and the more I learned about kelp, the more intrigued I became,” Granfield says. “I spent my entire life as a hunter-gatherer on the water, chasing fish and chasing lobster. If anyone had ever asked me if I could picture myself as a seaweed farmer, the polite answer would be ‘Hell no.’ But yet here I am.”
Another relatively new kelp farmer in Connecticut, Jay Douglas, said he and his wife Suzie jumped at the opportunity two years ago to try kelp farming, since it provided an additional source of income during the winter months when business at their marina in Pawcatuck slows down, while also being in step with their mission of stewardship of local waters. “There’s so many positives to doing this,” Douglas says. “It’s creating a new revenue stream for us during winter, it’s got the potential for a significant return on a relatively low investment, it’s putting healthy food on people’s plates, it’s beneficial to the environment — it’s more than a win-win.”
Soundkeeper Bill Lucey, who last summer officially became Long Island Sound’s top watchdog for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, views this innovative model for underwater farming as a major boost for the quality and health of the Sound, as well as the communities on its shoreline.
“Since underwater farming is a diversified aquaculture technique that utilizes a three-dimensional footprint, the species under cultivation can benefit others in the system by providing structure and nutrient cycling,” Lucey says. “In other words, the 3D farms are microenvironments that also help wild species, such as providing cover for young finfish. If the scale of this farming grows to the point of a Sound-wide industry, it will have a great impact on cleaning up water quality and providing water-based jobs, thereby diversifying the economy.”
Smith wholeheartedly agrees. “From a Connecticut standpoint alone, we’re creating jobs, we’re helping to transform struggling fishermen into thriving underwater 3D farmers. We’re also helping the Sound, or any waters where we’re farming like this. These farms need no input, no fertilizer, no feeding, not even any freshwater.”
According to Smith, farmed kelp soaks up five times more carbon than any land-based plant, and seaweed and oysters are also incredibly effective at filtering nitrogen out of water, which both he and Lucey describe as extremely beneficial to the Sound on multiple levels.
“Our underwater farms function as storm-surge protectors, breaking up wave action to reduce the impact of hurricanes and rising tides,” Smith says. “And they serve as artificial reefs, at a time when natural reefs are dying. My farm used to be a barren stretch of water, but now it’s a restorative, flourishing ecosystem. With GreenWave, we want to replicate that, not only up and down the coast of Connecticut, but all over the world.”
Lucey points to the longtime success, both environmentally and economically, that countries including Norway and Japan have enjoyed through seaweed farming, particularly kelp, and believes that Connecticut can lead the way to replicate those benefits in this country. The Soundkeeper explains that U.S. bodies of water, including Long Island Sound, that are suffering because of excess nitrogen from fertilizer runoff and other sources, can significantly benefit from restorative 3D underwater farming. “Nutrients (such as nitrogen) by themselves are not a pollutant — only excess quantities become pollutants,” Lucey says. “With this type of aquatic farming, we can look at this excess as a resource and use it to feed seaweed and shellfish, which can then be extracted and produce both an income benefit and increased water quality as these nutrients are removed from the system.”
A fish and wildlife biologist, former commercial fisherman and a longtime environmental advocate in places as far-reaching as Alaska and Hawaii, Lucey sees the growth of seaweed farming in Connecticut as a key part of a wider initiative to restore the overall health of Long Island Sound as it continues to face the effects of climate change, pollution and other environmental threats.
“As we clean up and reduce our landscape-scale nitrogen inputs through better farm practices, emission controls, lawn care, and sewage-treatment upgrades, these farms can play a vital role in the future of a clean Long Island Sound,” he says. “That’s what we’re all working toward.”
This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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