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Leon Kaye headshot

How 3-D Ocean Farming Can Save the Seas

By Leon Kaye

With the constant news about overfishing, ongoing acidification and the garbage cluttering the world’s oceans, the outcome for the world’s marine environment certainly looks bleak.

The aquaculture industry insists that farmed fish can help address this problem. But critics point out that a monoculture at sea poses analogous challenges to what is occurring with big agriculture on land. Ideas for cleaning up the oceans are certainly interesting and could spur more innovation, but these efforts are akin to taking a butter knife into a gun fight.

But what about using the ocean to harvest not only seafood, but plants at well?

Bren Smith is one such advocate. Originally from Newfoundland, Smith witnessed overfishing when he first started working within the fishing industry as a teenager. He took some interest in aquaculture, but as he explained in a recent article, he became dismayed as he saw fish treated almost the same way farm animals are on land. Eventually, Smith joined a program to attract fishermen to Long Island and became an oysterman. He witnessed the effects of climate change as lobster moved north to seek the cold water in which they thrive. Then Hurricanes Irene and Sandy hit.

Nevertheless, out of the mud that damaged the 100 acres he had leased, Smith found another economic opportunity. Inspired in part by University of Connecticut research, he shifted away from culling oysters from the seabed and is now recognized as a leader in 3-D ocean farming. In just a few short years, he won several awards and has been showcased on many of the world’s largest media outlets.

For Smith, his 20-acre farm is not just about producing seafood more sustainably. 3-D farming is part of a movement that seeks to move the world toward more of a plant-based diet to accommodate the 9 billion people expected on Earth by 2050 and to develop far more healthful eating habits. While we are regaled by the virtue of eating alternative grains and kale — and in addition, the United Nations has declared 2016 The Year of Pulses (beans and lentils) -- sea-based plants are plentiful and full of nutrients.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization  (FAO) has identified at least eight varieties of seaweed that are scalable, sustainable and jam-packed with nutrients. Porphyra, known as nori in Japan, has a protein content of up to 50 percent and is rich in vitamins A and C, niacin, and folic acid. Dulse, or “sea parsley,” is high in iron and, according to the FAO, has more vitamins than spinach. Gracilaria, a red seaweed, is loaded with antioxidants. The challenge for the nascent seaweed industry, however, is to demonstrate that these marine plants can be used in more dishes than in sushi and Korean soups.

Smith’s business is one step closer to changing how the world could eat. His farm resembles an underwater hanging garden, with varietals of seaweed growing horizontally and alternating with nets containing mussels and scallops. Under the garlands of seaweed, cages home to oysters sit on the sea floor, while clams are buried under a thin layer of mud. The total acreage is a fifth of what Smith used when he was only harvesting oysters pre-Hurricane Sandy.

And unlike aquaculture ponds, these 3-D farms are almost invisible, therefore hardly altering the local landscape. Smith insists they are also highly efficient: One acre of a farm like Smith’s can generate as much as 25 tons of greens and 250,000 shellfish in five months.

Now, Smith is working with chefs on ideas for dishes that move endangered wild fish away from the center of the plate — just as nutritionists insist our meals should be loaded with vegetables, with meat as a small side, not the main staple.

But this is more than feeding people in a new way. Smith touts a variety of environmental benefits: seaweed shows promise as a potential new source of biofuels; areas hosting bivalves such as oyster beds can act as a carbon sink and filter out nitrogen, which is responsible for “dead zones in our oceans;" and these farms could work as natural reefs and levees, helping to reduce the damage from rising sea levels and storm surges.

With increasing drought, constant encroachment on farmland and growing awareness about the meat industry’s impact on the planet means we may need to shift to the oceans — just at a time when our seas, too, are becoming more fragile. But if we can find a new way to feed people, bolster public health, create jobs and repair our world’s marine life, the work of visionaries such as Bren Smith could be seen as a turning point in how we manage our world's oceans.

Image credits: Bren Smith

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Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye