Is the Future of Farming in the Ocean? (Ep. 467)
Bren Smith, who grew up fishing and fighting, is now part of a movement that seeks to feed the planet while putting less environmental stress on it. He makes his argument in a book called Eat Like a Fish; his secret ingredient: kelp. But don’t worry, you won’t have to eat it (not much, at least). An installment of The Freakonomics Radio Book Club.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Bren SMITH: No one’s came and asked this basic question: What’s unique about the ocean as an agricultural space? What does it make sense to grow? And when you ask the ocean, it says something very simple. It whispers in your ear, “Why don’t you grow things that don’t swim, that you don’t have to feed.”
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SMITH: 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 shellfish.
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Smith was a teenage misfit who dealt and used drugs and caused various other trouble; more improbably, he also went to law school. These days, he’s an ocean farmer. He has a 10-acre plot of water off the Thimble Islands of Connecticut, in the Long Island Sound. He raises oysters, clams, mussels — and kelp, that brown, slippery seaweed that looks like packing tape. If you were passing by his farm in your boat, you might not notice it.
SMITH: You’d see these navigation buoys. They’re set about 300 feet apart.
But that’s about it. Some buoys.
SMITH: And that’s a good thing. The esthetics have allowed us to permit more easily and not get a lot of pushback from all the folks that see the ocean in all these different ways. I see it as an agricultural space. But other people see it as a place to put their feet up on their sailboat.
Stephen DUBNER: So, I have a sense of what it looks like from the surface. But then let’s say I jump in and go down 10, 20, even 40, 50 feet. What’s it look like there?
SMITH: Early in the season, you’ll just see lines, but then, say, by March, you’ll see these huge walls of brown. And that’s the kelp growing vertically downwards. And then, we intersperse our crop, so the next line you’d see these sort of long sausages of mussels and then if you went down deeper, you’d see oyster cages. You can’t see the clams because clams like the mud.
Smith lives in Fair Haven, Connecticut, a neighborhood in the eastern part of New Haven, home to Yale University. As for Fair Haven:
SMITH: It’s surrounded by two rivers and it’s got huge piles of scrap metal on one side that kind of keeps the Yalies out. But if you dare to cross through that, it’s just this incredible community. It actually was one of the centers of oyster farming through the 1800s. I live in an 1870s oyster captain’s house.
DUBNER: And you’ve got a shucking room in the basement, I read.
SMITH: It’s a round room with a huge hole in the floor where — I’m not sure what they did. Did they boil oysters, or maybe there’s just where they put all the shell? But my yard is filled with — you dig down about two feet and you just get oyster shells through the whole yard. And then the street is called East Pearl Street, it was actually paved with oyster shells back then.
Even though he raises oysters himself these days — and mussels, and clams — what Smith is really excited about is the kelp. Here’s another bit from his book:
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SMITH: Kelp replenishes ecosystems, rather than depleting them. It helps mitigate climate change, earning the moniker “Sequoia of the Sea.” It requires zero inputs — no feed, no freshwater, no fertilizers. It creates new habitat for all kinds of species, as all fishermen who enjoy angling on my farm can tell you.
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As I mentioned, the title of Smith’s book is Eat Like a Fish. The subtitle: My Adventures Farming the Ocean to Fight Climate Change. It won a James Beard Award last year. But he’s not planning to write more books.
SMITH: This one was tough. It was painful. I mean, I’m not a — I mean, I can tell a decent story in a bar.
What Smith is planning is a revolution.
SMITH: The oceans are huge, right? And the World Bank did a study that if you take less than 5 percent of U.S. waters and just grow seaweed, you sequester the carbon-output equivalent of 20 million cars.
He also has thoughts on what to do with all that seaweed. He has started a non-profit called GreenWave to preach his gospel. Given Bren Smith’s background, his preaching comes with a bit of an edge. Here’s another passage from Eat Like a Fish:
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SMITH: Convention says I should repent and prefer the sober, inoffensive, and violence-free life — but I don’t. The knife’s edge has been good to me. Making the world a better and more beautiful place isn’t about “softening” for the dinner crowd. It’s about the granular hard work of fighting waves and rolling up tattooed sleeves to work with nature. It’s not about “domestication,” it’s about blue-collar innovation. So leave civility on the docks; hop aboard and revel with me in the profane. It tastes so good.
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DUBNER: Let’s say you and I meet on a whatever — picnic, an airplane. What do you tell people that you are or that you do?
SMITH: “I was born in Newfoundland. And then I dropped out of high school, became a fisherman, and then wandered around and ended up as an ocean farmer.”
DUBNER: Okay. I mean, you left out all the hell-raising years.
SMITH: Yeah, but I’m sitting close to you on an airplane for like six hours, and —.
DUBNER: You don’t want to scare me.
SMITH: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Bren Smith grew up in a fishing village called Maddox Cove on the island of Newfoundland, just off the Canadian coast.
SMITH: Everyone was fishermen. That’s all I wanted to be. Those were the dream jobs. They get up, they head out on their own boats. No bosses, self-directed lives It was a really idyllic place to live.
His family didn’t quite fit in. His parents had left the U.S. in protest of the Vietnam War. His father was a linguist who spent months away from home, working with the Inuit up on the mainland, in Labrador. His mother raised Bren and his sister, and kept up her subscription to The New Yorker.
SMITH: My dad absolutely loved it. My mom definitely struggled. She was churning butter by hand. We didn’t have heat. We had just wood stoves. The toilet would freeze over.
When Bren was 13, the family took a vote on whether to move somewhere less rugged. He wanted to stay. He lost the vote, three-to-one.
SMITH: I moved into the suburbs of Boston, in this old apartment, it was right next to the railroad tracks. My parents moved there to try to get us into decent schools. It was a huge shock. Within weeks, I just began to unravel. I didn’t want any part of it. I’m packed full of all these learning disabilities and things, always struggled with school.
He started getting arrested for fighting, stealing, selling drugs.
SMITH: Everyone I was hanging out with ended up in jail, rehab, dead. There was a period of time where I really thought I’d end up in jail or dead.
DUBNER: Why do you think you didn’t?
SMITH: The boats. By the time I hit the boats, I just got obsessed with work systems and how to move your body. And just being really good at what I did.
He dropped out of school at 14 and worked on a lobster boat in Massachusetts. A few years later, he headed up to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Dutch Harbor is best known today as the setting of the reality show The Deadliest Catch. Smith was there before the tourists came in, when the place was rougher.
SMITH: The great thing about fishing is you’re not spending any money. You’re just out, and you’re just making money, and there’s just all this pent-up energy, and you hit the docks, you got thousands and thousands of dollars. And that’s just recipe for pretty intense nights.
Here is an excerpt from Eat Like a Fish:
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SMITH: Even though I was still a kid, I had already been fishing for years, so jobs in Dutch came easy. I worked trawlers, long liners, and crab boats. The work was hard, but I’d been forged for the 20 to 30 hour shifts for weeks on end. We were a mash-up of Inuit, white trash, Mexicans. It was the first time I met someone with a tear tattooed on his cheek, a badge for killing his first man. I learned how to sleep standing up, and how to spike chewing tobacco with jailhouse hooch fermented from cans of fruit cocktail. As the cod came aboard, we’d toss them into a conveyor belt, stun them with a hard blow to the head, slice into their bellies, and rip out the guts.
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But something was happening back in his native Newfoundland that got Smith’s attention.
NEWSCASTER: Ottawa is about to announce a moratorium on northern cod, a fishing ban that will cost 20,000 jobs. Understandably, people are anxious for more details. But today, Fisheries Minister John Crosbie refused to reveal them.
FISHERWOMAN: This situation is not our fault, Mr. Crosbie.
CROSBIE: It’s not my fault, either.
The actual job loss was even worse than what the news reported.
SMITH: Thirty thousand people thrown out of work overnight. The biggest layoff in Canadian history. It was the fishermen, it was the canneries. Seeing an economy that’s built up over hundreds of years and just seeing that sort of guts ripped out of the culture. And fishermen just wandering the streets, like hungry ghosts. That’s where I pulled out at a macro level and was like, “Oh, there’s something bigger going on.”
The bigger picture was complicated: changing economics, changing climate, and significant overfishing.
SMITH: The thing about humans is we get good at stuff and then we get too good at stuff. And we just got too good at catching fish. Part of that was World War II. A lot of the technology, radar. Spotter planes tracking tuna. Huge factory ships developed then. So that was the moment from a community-based fishery or nationally-based fishery, to a global-industrial fishery. I mean, markets are really good at some stuff and they seem really bad at others.
DUBNER: Give me a “for instance” where they’re really bad.
SMITH: We catch all this wild Alaskan salmon. It all goes overseas. And then we import farmed salmon from Chile, from Norway. That’s crazy. In California, 90 percent of the squid go to Asia to be processed and then come back to the U.S to be eaten. It’s nuts.
The collapse of the cod industry was a tragedy for Newfoundland. For Smith, it was an inflection point. He decided to leave Alaska and move back to the only place he’d ever thought of as home. He took night classes at the local university and got a job on a salmon farm. He thought this would be a bright future.
SMITH: I was sort of promised this false bill of goods, which was, this is the new food revolution. You’re going to still be able to be on boats and feed the planet. And it was just Iowa pig farming at sea. Pesticides, antibiotics, the fish tasted terrible.
This was in the early 1990’s. Smith argues that aquaculture hasn’t changed all that much. Here’s an excerpt from his book:
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SMITH: Mother Nature abhors monoculture. Stuff any animal cheek-to-jowl into overly crowded pens and the oceans will fight back with rampant disease. It’s pretty simple: too many fish sh*tting in one place create fertile swamps for disease and pests, which in turn trigger a cascade of antibiotics, pesticides, and G.M.O.’s. Once consumers caught on and began boycotting farmed fish, the aquaculture industry adopted a furtive strategy of mislabeling their seafood and doubling their marketing budgets. Fish were secretly shipped off to processing facilities that mixed farmed and wild. Thousands of untraceable frozen filets were trucked off to restaurants and seafood markets. To this day, one out of three fish sold in the United States is not what it promises to be.
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Here’s how Smith has come to diagnose the issue. People all over the world love to eat fish — and they eat more today than ever. And the aquaculture industry has grown and grown to supply that demand. But, he says, there is a fundamental problem.
SMITH: The fundamental problem with aquaculture is it didn’t ask the ocean what to grow; it asked the markets. So if people want to eat salmon and tuna, you try to grow salmon and tuna, but salmon and tuna are wild fish. People are really trying to make fish-fed aquaculture better now. But it’s still in its environmental R&D stage.
By the time he was in his late 20s, Bren Smith had tried wild fishing, farm fishing, and everything in between.
SMITH: After I left the aquaculture farms, I was lost and didn’t know what to do.
He got into community organizing, working with dairy farmers and coal miners.
SMITH: I felt so uneducated. My sister was so smart. My dad, my mom. And so I decided to go back to school. And this woman — I guess there’s a soft level of corruption, I have no idea, but she got me into Cornell.
Meaning, Cornell Law School. Here’s how he describes it in the book.
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SMITH: Getting into Cornell was the high point. Then it sucked. From day one, all my insecurities about education and about whether I was “smart” were inflamed. I began waking at 5 a.m., back to my fisherman’s hours, to read until the pages blurred. Although miserable, I did well in one class — first-year contracts — emerging with an A+. That A+ gave me a boost in confidence, but it turned out to be a fluke. I eked by in the rest of my classes, often skipping weeks of lectures just to avoid getting called on by professors. I felt stupid and alone, and compensated by trying desperately to keep a fingerhold on my identity by hiding a spittoon in the inside of my jacket pocket so I could chew tobacco during class. I tried, but I just f*cking didn’t belong there.
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He made it to graduation, but he never even took the bar exam.
SMITH: I bought a $700 Airstream and parked it in the Walmart parking lot in Guilford, Connecticut. I was with a woman at that time. That’s where she lived. And then I just lived there for — it was supposed to be like a year-and-a-half. I ended up in there for like 13 years.
He and his girlfriend made art out of scrap wood and drove it into Manhattan to sell it. They made surprisingly good money. Smith was a scrapper, a hustler. But also: still kind of lost. He felt the need to get back on the water. He heard that a local shellfish commission was opening up new oyster grounds, for the first time in a century-and-a-half. As he writes in his book, “Those old fellas saved my life.” Here’s a nice passage from the book:
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SMITH: With the new Thimble Island leases available, I decided to remake myself as an oysterman. By 2014, I had grown a blue thumb and learned to read my waters in new ways. Through oysters, I’d gotten to know every inch of my farm’s seafloor, and by growing plants vertically, I learned the patterns and seasonal variations of the full water column. This meant daily observation of how the currents moved through my fields, where the sweetest nutrients flowed in the water column, and how a mix of winds and tides shifted the movement of my kelp rows. My inner life was changing, too. I was fully reborn as a farmer. The hunter in me was gone, and I had lost my thirst for blood. My brain felt different, like it had been rewired. My need for high-octane adventure waned. My shift happened slowly, born out of watching kelp grow. I can’t put my thumb on it, but there was a mystery to growing plants, a pleasure apart from fishing and farming shellfish. Maybe it was the kelp’s iridescent colors, maybe the wonder of hoisting 15-foot walls of plants out of the water. I imagine this is the sweet quiet that inspires poet-farmers like Wendell Berry. Seaweed had changed me.
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DUBNER: So did you invent 3-D ocean farming — you, Bren Smith?
SMITH: No, I’m like a moment in this really long lineage. What I did when I came in is I talked to every old-timer I could. I mean, regenerative ocean farming goes back, in the Pacific Northwest, thousands of years, when Indigenous communities were creating clam walls. The first mussel farmer was this Irishman that got shipwrecked in France. He tried to net some birds and so he put these nets out and instead all this mussel seed stuck to it. So he became a mussel farmer. And still, that region of France is a central mussel-farming area.
SMITH: What I did, if I did anything, was I took all these different kinds of farming and put them together into a system where overhead was still low, but all these species work together.
His mix of crops evolved over time.
SMITH: So it used to be all shellfish, it started with oysters and then clams. And over time, kelp has taken up more and more of the share of the volume and the profits. And so right now, it’s about 80-20 — 80 for kelp, 20 percent shellfish. And the reason is, it’s just easier to grow plants than animals. And it’s not as labor-intensive. Every species has its own business model. Different labor costs. The great thing about oysters, for example, is they come prepackaged. You just clean them on the boat, throw them in a bag and they go to market. Kelp has to be processed and stabilized within about 8 to 12 hours or the cells break down. And so they create processing plants and things like that which really eat into profitability. Kelp grows so fast and in such high volume, you’re looking at about 10 tons per acre.
DUBNER: Is there any land-based crop that’s that productive?
SMITH: I don’t know anything about land, but—.
DUBNER: “I don’t know anything about land.” Just so you know, you’re sitting on it right now. Okay, so you get a crapload of kelp, in other words, and if you have to do it all yourself, it starts to become not viable.
SMITH: Yeah. This year, what happened is we took all our kelp, we couldn’t process it inside because of Covid and we processed it in abandoned tobacco barns in Connecticut. There are a hundred of these. They are gigantic because Connecticut actually had a tobacco industry for quite a while. And it turns out kelp looks like tobacco. It acts like it. The workers on the farm, they’re like, “Oh, this is simple, you just hang all the kelp.”
Smith may have cracked the processing issue, but there are other challenges.
SMITH: The trouble with growing food underwater is you can’t control your soil. My quote-unquote soil, which is water, turns over a thousand times a day. I can’t see what I grow. And there’s just all these complex things going on year-to- year on the same patch of water. So some years, my kelp will be five feet long. Other years it’ll be 20 feet long. Some years I’ll get biofouling, like sea squirts and things will stick to it really early, which really affects whether I can use it for food.
And this gets to perhaps the biggest challenge for a kelp farmer: How to find customers. Here’s another excerpt from Eat Like a Fish, which explains where the title comes from.
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SMITH: Native seaweeds contain more vitamin C than orange juice, more calcium than milk, and more protein than soybeans. Those on the hunt for omega-3’s are often surprised to learn that fish don’t create these heart-healthy nutrients by themselves — they consume them. By eating the plants fish eat, we get the same benefits, while reducing pressure on fish stocks. So it’s high time we eat like fish. Problem is, a lot of Americans think seaweed is disgusting. For most of my life, so did I. Slimy and rubbery, it’s got “weed” in its name, and it’s more likely to wash up on the beach than show up in your dinner plate. Sure, dried seaweed snacks and seaweed salads are widely accepted now. But if we want to leverage the thousands of edible ocean plants to build a new agricultural food system out to sea, we’ve got to move ocean veggies to the center of the plate, and that means convincing Americans that sea vegetables are no different from any other vegetable.
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Smith had a vision, but he wasn’t quite sure how to get there. So, the year being 2014, he did what a lot of people were doing then: he launched a Kickstarter campaign:
SMITH: I believe deeply that my farm can be a model of how we can save our seas, how we can save our planet, and ultimately ourselves. We can create a blue-green revolution that fights climate change, feeds the world, and creates blue-green jobs.
His message resonated. He easily beat his $30,000 goal. He also attracted the attention of professional investors — venture capitalists. Smith calls them “sharks.”
SMITH: They want to think of themselves as the fuzzy sharks, right? You know, “I made a huge amount of money in hedge funds and now I want to do good with that money.”
But they weren’t a good fit for him.
SMITH: People who make their money off of just money aren’t very good at business. So a lot of these folks who come out of hedge funds and stuff think they’re amazing, running businesses, and they’re just terrible.
In his book, here’s how he describes the feeding frenzy he’d become part of.
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SMITH: Word was out: There were big bucks to be made at sea and farmers were chum in the water. Corporations began realizing they could move in early and dominate a new agricultural space with unlimited growth potential. Sharks began circling, calling, emailing, showing up at events. A prince of Qatar. Head of economic innovation at the White House. Breathless stories came out in Forbes, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal. Others were promising millions in Bitcoin investments. I heard rumors of a Saudi arms dealer who was trying to get his hands on a California lease. Tax lawyers were salivating at the prospect of using farms in international waters as tax havens. One expert interviewed by Business Insider captured the mood: “If I could buy kelp futures, I would.”
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Can Bren Smith make ocean farming big, but not the wrong kind of big? Can he get the U.S. government to support a Blue New Deal? And: can he persuade America that “kelp is the new kale”?
SMITH: I was totally wrong. Kelp is not the new kale.
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Bren Smith, a Newfoundland native, spent his youth fishing and fighting; now he’s an ocean farmer in Connecticut, primarily growing kelp; and he runs a non-profit called GreenWave, trying to attract other people to what is called regenerative ocean farming. His book is called Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures Farming the Ocean to Fight Climate Change. In his view, kelp is something of a wonder crop; consumers don’t necessarily see it that way, at least not if they’re expected to eat it.
DUBNER: So reading your book, you write about sea greens, primarily kelp, but many others, as if they are the next thing that’s already here. And you’ve got this motto, “Kelp is the new kale.” And it really feels like the revolution is underway. But in all the places that I shop — whether it’s grocery stores, or online, like a FreshDirect, even in farmer’s markets, I’m not seeing it as a primary ingredient. So, why not? And what’s it going to take for that to happen?
SMITH: I was totally wrong. Kelp is not the new kale. Early on, we were doing kelp cocktail events in New York. And these incredible chefs who are able to do amazing stuff like barbecue kelp noodles with parsnips and breadcrumbs. But it really stuck in the boutique. And so it hasn’t broken in that way. It has broken in as an ingredient in plant-based burgers, replacements for bouillon cubes, things like that. Woven into these other industries. The reason you don’t see it in stores is that it’s so unapproachable because it has to be dried in order to be shelf-stable. If you just have it out at a farmer’s market, it’s going to wilt. But we’ve broken to the other side, I think, once we understood it’s not going to be boutique. In the era of climate change, everyone needs to think way, way bigger. Beyond community gardens, beyond farmers’ markets, and really how to think at scale.
DUBNER: So if I’m hearing you right, it sounds like the scalability option for kelp as an edible is as a food ingredient, not on its own, but that even as an ingredient, the potential is huge, yes?
SMITH: Yeah, exactly.
DUBNER: Did you feel like in retrospect, you wasted time by getting seduced by the boutique appeal?
SMITH: We had to do it because kelp is so disgusting. We had to get people to eat it, right?
DUBNER: So when I hear you describe all the purposes of seaweed, from an ingredient in foods to eating on its own, to bioplastics, fertilizer, it sounds like the soy of the sea. And if I say that to you, you probably bristle a little bit. You don’t like soy beans so much as a crop, do you?
SMITH: Soy has an even worse brand name than aquaculture.
DUBNER: Because why?
SMITH: I mean, it’s associated with massive monoculture, tearing down rainforests, pesticide use. It’s like the example of global agribusiness that is impacting the climate in a negative way. But there are some similarities. I met a soy historian at this event. And I was like, “People go to school for everything.” But he taught me something really important, which in the 40s and then into the 50s, soy started trying to get Americans to eat soy and they came to the conclusion, never going to happen. So they said, “Let’s put it in everything. Let’s weave it through all these industries.” And now soy is absolutely everywhere. And so we can do that with kelp and other seaweeds. We can weave it into existing industries and have a really positive effect. We turn it into fertilizer and compost. And if the kelp has got a lot of biofouling on it, that’s really good for the land-based farmer, because it’s packed full of these micronutrients and nitrogen and carbon. And then we do bioplastics. There’s some great companies creating packaging, straws and they’re all compostable. And then the last income stream we see is blue carbon and nitrogen.
DUBNER: So blue carbon and nitrogen, you need to explain that a little bit. So, basically you’re doing pollution remediation, yes?
SMITH: Yeah. So the natural kelp forests pull out carbon. It’s this huge carbon sink and always has been. So that has value. But the markets don’t recognize it. And so, as farmers, we’re able to grow it. And then, if we’re able to track that carbon and it’s sequestered in the soils, that carbon credit goes to the farmer.
DUBNER: How do you get paid for that?
SMITH: Blue carbon and in general, carbon credits and offsets, there’s this gold rush around it. There’s not much rigor, and tracking and really knowing the true content of carbon is a huge challenge. So what we’re doing is we take the kelp, a percentage that we know goes into fertilizer and compost to a certified land-based farm that knows how to take that and capture the carbon in their soil. And then that offset will go to GreenWave, the ocean farmer, and then we’ve got buyers. Everybody from Shopify to Adidas. Everybody’s hungry for offsets. We won’t have trouble selling them. It’s just a matter of really making sure there’s a rigorous standard around it.
DUBNER: So, on the kelp that’s grown for pollution remediation to absorb all this carbon and nitrogen, can you double-dip on that? In other words, it does all that and then you sell it for something else?
SMITH: Well, you need to split carbon between “avoided carbon” and “drawdown.” “Avoided carbon” is: Someone eats kelp as opposed to kale, right? So there, you’re not drawing down carbon but you’re reducing the amount of carbon output of other industries. Then there’s “drawdown,” which is taking carbon out and storing it for hundreds, thousands of years, right?
* * *
SMITH: I often get asked if it’s possible to farm in urban areas. The answer is yes, and we’re already doing it. We call it pollution farming, purposefully siting farms not for food production but for bioremediation — what scientists call “ecosystem services”— near metropolitan areas. The goal is to leverage the power of shellfish and seaweeds to filter water and soak up carbon, nitrogen, and heavy metals, all the while rebuilding reef systems. An example is Dr. Yarish’s groundbreaking work in New York, where he set up a kelp and shellfish farm in the Bronx River to pull nitrogen, mercury, and other pollutants out of the city’s waterways. I can only imagine how hard it would be to market seaweed grown at the tip of Hunts Point, but these results show that some urban farms’ crops will be food-grade. Others will be suitable as fertilizers or feeds, and the really nasty stuff can be turned into biofuel.
* * *
DUBNER: So, at a certain point, you became famous for doing what you’re doing and you became a media sensation. You really enjoyed that period of your life, yes?
SMITH: It drove me off the water. I felt increasingly alienated. And my wife just made fun of me, insulted me regularly. We’d have a fight. She’d be like, “I thought I married an oysterman, not some guy that does talks.”
DUBNER: You were invited to ask Elizabeth Warren a question during a Democratic primary town hall in the presidential election. I think we have that tape to play for you.
Chris CUOMO: This is from Bren Smith. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He was a commercial fisherman. Now he works as a shellfish farmer. Bren, what’s your question?
Elizabeth WARREN: Hi Bren.
SMITH: My oyster farm was destroyed by two hurricanes. Now, warming waters and acidification are killing seed coast-to-coast and reducing yields. Those of us that work on the water, we need climate solutions and we need them now. The trouble is, is the Green New Deal only mentions our oceans one time. This is despite the fact that our seas soak up more than 25 percent of the world’s carbon. So what’s your plan for a Blue New Deal, for those of us working on the ocean?
WARREN: I like that.
SMITH: To make sure all of us can make a living on a living planet.
WARREN: So — I thank you. I think it is a great question. I think he’s got it exactly right. We need a Blue New Deal as well. Good for you.
DUBNER: That enthusiasm sounded incredibly genuine. Was it? Did anything happen as a result of that?
SMITH: Yes. Senator Warren came out with a Blue New Deal. As far as I know it was the first time there was a major plank in a primary about the oceans, which is wonderful. It was really comprehensive. And it really did come at it from a climate frame. You know, there was training 10,000 folks to replant kelp forests and eel grasses. There was a blue carbon fund in there to incentivize increased investment into the sector. There was all these elements. And it’s a very serious document and I really hope it gets picked up. There is some conceptual wall or block we have, except for in intensive fishing cultures, about the ocean. More of the U.S. territory is under water than above. But we just don’t think of it as this space for solutions for the economy. The history, especially seaweed farming, is an Asian thing. But it turns out that there have been all these moments where incredible thinkers have merged together and crossed paths. Like in the Defense Department, Department of Energy got really into ocean farming.
Actually, the guy who helped invent the Sidewinder missile, this guy Willcox, started designing ocean platforms. There was a big split, from the 50s to the 70s, where the U.S. saw seaweed and ocean farming as an industrial thing. Like, “Let’s do biofuel, let’s do huge feed, let’s make acetone.” They thought just of it as not food. But in Asia they thought of it as food, so they built a whole industry around that. That said, I think the time is right. And it’s really because of climate change. Just like Covid created the opportunity for us to dry in tobacco barns, all the terrain is changing from climate change. We can either build seawalls and flee the coasts. Or we can be like, “Wow, that’s more farmland.” Right? I’m going to be using the skyscrapers and Wall Street as anchor systems at some point, right?
With his non-profit, GreenWave, Smith is trying to recruit, train, and organize an army of kelp farmers. Of course, it’s got to be financially viable.
SMITH: When I came in, the wild price for kelp was 26 cents a pound. I set it at a dollar for my farm, but I was a first-mover outside New York. And then it’s dropped down to 55 to 60 cents a pound. No farmer can make a living at that rate. What you need is a floor of $2.
DUBNER: I don’t mean to sound like The Man coming after you, but if this was telecom firms talking about getting together to discuss a price floor, I would say, “Oh, that sounds like collusion.” On the other hand, if I’m a big firm, I could have nothing to do with the ocean, I could have nothing to do with agriculture, I’d think, “These guys have gotten really good at what they do, but they’ve set the price relatively high. And I can come in and get a couple of billion dollars’ worth of venture capital and drive them so underwater by pricing it much lower and then monopolize and take over.” So, is that the outcome that you fear?
SMITH: Yes. Well, collusion, no. Every farmer should collude every day. Like, price-fixing is our main tool. But that’s why you form a co-op, right? You’re allowed to price-fix in a co-op.
DUBNER: And sometimes, to be fair, the government helps do that. Like with milk, for instance.
SMITH: Yeah, exactly. That sort of collaboration has been key. But what you’re, sort of, locating is exactly the issue, is that we’ve gone out as small-scale farmers and de-risked the industry. And huge amounts of money and big companies like Trident, one of the biggest seafood companies in the world, are leasing grounds, aiming for vertical integration. I won’t be able to stop that, right? Society has to stop that. Policies are being developed state to state right now on regenerative ocean farming and seaweed. And there’s a huge opportunity to embed certain rules in that policy. For example, you can’t be an absent owner. So it’s not like Iowa, where huge percentage of the hog farm owners they’re companies from outside. You can make sure that seed has to be produced locally within a certain bioregion, 100 miles or something from where the farms are. So there are certain levers that we can do. My dream would be that we would look like Supercuts. And the reason for that is, Supercuts has never caught on in a place like Fair Haven, in inner cities. And the reason is because there’s so many people with barber shops and salons and things. The barrier to entry is so low, it’s not that expensive.
DUBNER: Wait, you want to look like the opposite of Supercuts, don’t you?
SMITH: Oh, yeah yeah, yeah. I’m bald, so I never go there.
DUBNER: You write that basically what you need to become an ocean farmer is a few acres of ocean, which you can often license from your state or local government fairly cheaply, then to buy some gear, all of which is really cheap, all in about $20,000. So, let’s say I do have $20,000 lying around and I love this idea, but I don’t actually want to get wet myself. How can I invest in someone who wants to do it without necessarily trying to bigfoot them and turn this into a total industrialization of ocean farming?
SMITH: I mean, I’d love people who want to get wet to be out there. But if folks have some money and want to participate and invest in the industry, there’s some really interesting ways to do it. A lot of farmers will get started, but they need money to scale. You don’t have to just be an ocean farmer. There are all these other jobs. There are hatcheries right now that we have, they’re in Alaska, other places, that need community-college-level workers. So there is going to be a whole jobs pipeline. We need engineers. We need policy people. So it’s sort of all-hands-on-deck. So maybe you don’t want to be out there with a sledgehammer in the winter breaking ice off the gunnels. But hatcheries are nice and warm and you don’t have to get up so early.
DUBNER: So you’re how old now?
SMITH: I’m 48.
DUBNER: So, let’s say we subtract 31 or 2 years and you’re mid-teenage Bren Smith and you’re in trouble and probably heading toward more trouble. If someone like that is listening to this now, what do you tell them?
SMITH: This is kind of a cliché, but like, you’re struggling because life is organized in an absolutely ridiculous, painful, awful way, right? They’ve put you in schools that fundamentally are not built to educate? They put you in jobs that are absolutely meaningless and demeaning. So take that energy — like, know you’re right that you’re revolting. Just start revolting in a different way that’s less self-destructive.
DUBNER: It was really interesting to read about the technology that you need for ocean farming. And then there’s the technology that, you write, you don’t need. For instance, you write, “There is a gaggle of U.S. engineers designing autonomous ocean farming boats and harvesters. Sorry, but I’m going to drive my own f’ing boat.” You write, “As soon as one of those are put in the water, I will be sneaking out with my shotgun on a foggy night to put a hole in its hull. A quick, painless death.” I mean, you sound like such an enlightened person, generally. But now all of a sudden, you’re like a Luddite with the textile looms that you just want to sma — what’s the problem there, seriously?
SMITH: Well, go back to what a fisherman is. Like, why did I do this? My goal is to die in my boat one day. My goal is not to be at the docks in my truck with a remote control. The sense of agency of owning my own boat, being sort of one with the ocean and the weather. Those things are so valuable. We sort of demean those fundamental principles of the heart and the soul. And that sounds so cheesy, but like no one’s writing a song about a tech worker, right? There are thousands of songs about fishermen, about farmers, about steelworkers, because these are soul-filling jobs that have direct function for things that society needs. And so as soon as the folks doing robotics get shanties written about them in the bars, I’ll change my view.
DUBNER: You’re familiar with the phrase “to go out in a blaze of glory,” yes? You know where that phrase comes from?
DUBNER: I might be wrong, but I feel like I read once that it was a Viking king, when he was dead, they just put his body on a boat, set it out, light it on fire, gone. That sounds like exactly what you would like, yes?
SMITH: Yeah. It’s like a dream.
DUBNER: I mean, I don’t mean to rush your demise, but when the time comes.
SMITH: Yeah. I just don’t want all, like, my pets and my wife on it, too.
DUBNER: Yeah, understood.
That was Bren Smith, the owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm, a founder of the GreenWave non-profit, and author of Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures Farming the Ocean to Fight Climate Change.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Brent Katz. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Mary Diduch, Zack Lapinski, Morgan Levey, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. The audio excerpts of Eat Like a Fish are courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio; they were read by the author, Bren Smith. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra, Michael Reola, and Stephen Ulrich. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Bren Smith, owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm, co-founder of the GreenWave non-profit, and author of Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures Farming the Ocean to Fight Climate Change.
- “‘Our Last Great Natural Renewable Resource’: Could Seaweed Save the World?” by Adriaane Pielou (The National, 2021).
- “California’s Critical Kelp Forests Are Disappearing in a Warming World. Can They Be Saved?” by Todd Woody (National Geographic, 2020).
- “Oystering in Connecticut, from Colonial Times to the 21st Century,” by Doe Boyle (Connecticut History, 2020).
- “The Oceans Are Absorbing More Carbon Than Previously Thought,” by Jamie Shutler and Andy Watson (World Economic Forum, 2020).
- “The Economics of Climate,” by the International Monetary Fund (2019).
- Eat Like a Fish, by Bren Smith (2019).
- “As Oceans Warm, the World’s Kelp Forests Begin to Disappear,” by Alastair Bland (Yale Environment 360, 2017).
- “Mussels From the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel,” by Marilyn Brouwer (France Today, 2016).
- “More Than Half of the U.S. Lies Underwater?” (60 Minutes, 2015).
- “Fish Farms: Good, Bad, or Downright Ugly?” by the National Consumers League (2014).
- “The Long Journey of ‘Local’ Seafood to Your Plate,” by Paul Greenberg (Los Angeles Times, 2014).
- “Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide,” by Oceana (2013).
- “Giant Kelp Forests Granted Endangered Status,” (ABC News, 2012).
- “20 Years Later, Cod Recovery Off Newfoundland Finally Evident,” by The Canadian Press (CTV News, 2012).
- “Economic Impacts of the Cod Moratorium,” by Jenny Higgins (Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage, 2008).
- “Climate, Fishery and Society interactions: Observations from the North Atlantic,” by Lawrence C. Hamilton (University of New Hampshire Scholars’ Repository, 2007).
- “Cod Moratorium Deemed ‘The Biggest Layoff in Canadian History,’” by Tonda MacCharles (The National, 1992).
- “Sidewinder,” by Howard A. Wilcox (Invention & Technology, 1989).
- “Researchers Fishing for Energy Sources Think Sea Kelp Can Help,” by Sara Terry (The Christian Science Monitor, 1980).
- “Fair Haven: An Historical and Ecological Field Study,” by Steve Kass (Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Curricular Resources, 1979).
- “Energy From the Sea: Part III: Marine Farms and Salt Batteries,” by Arthur Fisher (Popular Science, 1975).