The Cleanest Catch

It’s gonna get messy in here,” says Brendan Smith, slipping a pair of plastic waders over his flannel and jeans. He’s preparing to harvest his oysters, growing in cages deep beneath the waters of the Long Island Sound.

At first, Smith appears to be an average oyster farmer — hard working, strong-armed, and a little rough around the edges. But Smith and his oyster farm are anything but average.

Look, first, at his boat: its plastic roof is covered in solar panels that supply the boat’s internal electricity needs. The engine runs on Smith’s self-produced seaweed biofuel, which he grows on the ropes that attach his oysters to buoys at the surface. Smith may be an oyster farmer, but he is also a pioneer in a new generation of sustainable fishing.

“Even the ‘sustainable’ fish you buy in the grocery store is usually depleting aquatic environments somehow,” Smith says. “We’re looking to stop that—to leave the environment better than we found it.” For Smith, sustainable seafood is more than low-impact—it’s actually restorative.

To create this restorative seafood culture, Smith is reinventing how to fish — using the solar panels on his boat, seaweed biofuel, and local markets. He is also re-evaluating which species of seafood should be farmed. Some species, like salmon and shrimp, require huge inputs of wild-caught baitfish for food. By contrast, some seafood species actually provide more to the environment than they take from it. Oysters are one such species.

Oysters act as sponges for aquatic nitrogen pollution, from which the Long Island Sound suffers tremendously. This pollution comes from leaky sewage treatment plants and runoff from highly fertilized, very green suburban lawns. As nitrogen builds up in the Sound, great blooms of algae quickly spring up to feast upon this source of nutrients, a process called eutrophication. When these algal blooms eventually die, vast armies of bacteria break down their cells, in the process sucking up all the oxygen in the surrounding water. As a result, fish in the water do not have any oxygen to breathe, and enormous die-offs occur. Oysters act as one of the best lines of defense against this algal takeover by filtering out nitrogen from the water.

Who knew that these slurpable little guys are capable of mitigating both eutrophication and climate change? Photo by Ben Goldfarb.

Smith’s oyster farm doesn’t just fight against algal blooms — it also helps fight climate change. In nitrogen-heavy oceans, bacteria often produce nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. But the production of nitrous oxide is no humorous matter: it’s one of the most potent greenhouse gases, capable of trapping more than 300 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. Oysters prevent the formation of this powerful, but often overlooked, greenhouse gas by filtering nitrogen from the ocean.

Although Brendan Smith began farming these miraculous shellfish only nine years ago, he has been fishing for much of his 39 years. He grew up by the sea, in the eleven-house village of Petty Harbor in Newfoundland, Canada.  “All anyone ever did was fish,” Smith says, though his own parents proved an exception to that rule. Smith grew up in a traditional fishing town where lobster and cod were king, but he was raised by Brooklyn-based parents: dodgers of the Vietnam draft, back-to-the-land enthusiasts, and intellectuals. They were working-class fishermen, but they were also New York bohemians— in other words, they were a lot like Smith has turned out to be.

When Smith was 13, his family moved back to America and settled in the Boston suburbs. For Smith, everything about the move was a terrible shock, especially public school. “I just couldn’t stand it,” Smith recalls. And so at 14, he ran away from home. Young and quite lost in the world, he naturally returned to his roots — the sea.

He took a job on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska hunting the cod McDonald’s used for their Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. But Smith quickly found that McDonald’s didn’t fish like his family back in Petty Harbor. “When we were trawling, we’d pull up a net of maybe a dozen species, but we only needed three. So what you had was an acre of death, and you were just picking out what you wanted.” Looking back on it now, Smith calls it “rape and pillage” fishing.

This amazingly profitable — and incredibly destructive — fishing has been going on since the beginning of the 19th century, depleting fish stocks with astonishing speed. In Smith’s native Newfoundland seas, for example, from the end of WWII to 1992, commercial cod harvests declined by 99%. Trawling — which Smith practiced on the McDonald’s boats — is the primary culprit of such destruction; it’s been called the marine equivalent of clear-cutting entire forests in order to hunt deer.

At 18, Smith left the commercial fishing industry and went back to school (enlisting the aid of a high school guidance counselor to fudge his academic record and gain him entrance to the University of Vermont). He originally wanted to study aquaculture, the farming of the sea, in order to find a sustainable solution to commercial fishing practices. But thanks to his abbreviated pre-college education, Smith couldn’t get through the science courses UVM’s aquaculture program required.

“I figured I could write a sentence, though,” Smith jokes. He studied English and religious studies for three years at UVM and then transferred his final year to a less-intensive aquaculture school in his native Newfoundland.

Oyster farming is just the latest unlikely plot twist in Brendan Smith’s life.

Back in Newfoundland, Smith re-immersed himself in sea-life, delving into the promise and pitfalls of aquaculture— mostly the pitfalls. Commercial aquaculture is often plagued by sustainability problems, an unfortunate reality that Smith experienced first-hand during his studies in Newfoundland of halibut and salmon farms.

At these farms, fish are fed fish meal and fish oil — cheap foods with high protein content — in order to fatten them up quickly. As a result, these farms require much more fish as feed than they actually produce. Additionally, the water in these farms is infused with pesticides and chemicals to prevent disease and pests. The polluted wastewater from the farm then trickles back into the ocean and onto coastal lands, poisoning them.

This aquaculture was not the sustainable solution to commercial fishing Smith had been looking for. “I was still trying to figure out how we could protect and save our seas while producing food,” Smith says. And the only way to figure that out was to experiment with new seafood-producing techniques.

But Smith felt he needed a back-up plan in case his experiment with sustainable fishing didn’t work out, so he went to Cornell law school for three years (fortunately for Smith, it turned out he could write a sentence very well). His law degree provided him with an economic safety net, giving him the freedom to fail while experimenting with what he really cared about: the cod he was growing in tanks in his apartment during his studies at Cornell Law.

After Smith finished law school, it took him two years to get back to the sea. Smith met a girl — Niccola, an artist from the Michigan School of Art and Design — and relocated from New York to live with her in Branford, CT. They lived in a trailer creating art together, as they still do today: functional pieces such as clocks and silkscreens made out of recycled wood.

During those first two years they spent together, Smith hadn’t forgotten about returning to the sea. “I was trying to figure out how I could fit together my current life with fishing,” Smith explains.

That life also involved political activism. In 2001 Smith co-produced the PBS documentary Global Village or Global Pillage?—a film about grassroots organizations empowering people, especially in the third world, against a growing consumerist global economy. Smith doesn’t like to focus on this part of his life now, though. It’s not his priority anymore.

What’s more important to Smith is what he read in the paper one June morning in 2002: “I just happened to read a New York Times article about how Branford, CT was releasing its shellfishing grounds to be leased for the first time in 150 years. And that was it.” Smith used the money he had made from his art to buy a lease for 50 acres of sea. “I started there, knowing nothing except my experience with commercial fishing and aquaculture—and my rejection of those things,” he said. After researching shellfish on his own and talking to shellfish farmers all along the East coast, Smith determined that oysters were the way to go.

“It was the natural thing,” Smith said. Oysters fit his goals for sustainability more than any other fish or shellfish—as protectors against algal blooms and climate change.

As it has turned out, however, farming oysters has proved significantly more difficult than Smith would have hoped. Three times, his farm has been completely wiped out by storms that dredged up mud from the seafloor, inundating oyster cages in muck and suffocating the bivalves within. Three times, Smith has ben left with nothing but empty shells.

When this occurs, as it did recently during Hurricane Sandy, a community-supported fish cooperative subsidizes Smith’s financial losses. Luckily, Smith has the resources to start up his farm again. But the work required to restart the farm after one of these storms is nothing short of demoralizing.

The cages, inundated with mud, are extremely heavy, and Smith must extract them from the water using only a rudimentary pulley and the strength of his own two arms. After minutes of laborious cranking, the cage Smith extracts from the sea drips with a black, fishy-smelling sludge. Smith must dump this mess back into the ocean in order to salvage his cages and plant oysters again, knowing full well that his efforts may only result in the same smelly mess.

This oozing, reeking, repeated failure would be enough to break most peoples’ spirits — but not Smith’s. Failure is just a part of the experiment. “I want to stay irrelevant and experimental,” he said. “I don’t want fame. I don’t want power. The purpose of my life is to spark.” Smith’s oyster farm won’t solve climate change or eutrophication alone. But it may inspire others to experiment, fail, succeed — and in so doing, find a new solution.

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