Bren Smith
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THIMBLEISLANDOYSTERS.COM

The Least Deadliest Catch

How one commercial fisherman found a way to make a living sustainably. 

September 21, 2015

Like the guys on the show Deadliest Catch, Bren Smith used to kill fish by the millions. But after working in Alaska’s commercial fisheries for a decade, he grew tired of the carnage and its ecological damage. So he found a way to make a living from the sea by creating life instead. He moved to coastal Connecticut, leased 40 acres of ocean farmland, and started Thimble Island Oyster Company.

At this underwater farm, Smith grows a polyculture of shellfish and kelp. The fast-growing marine vegetable is an excellent source of iodine, micronutrients, and even biofuel and fertilizer. At Thimble Island, it’s grown on hanging underwater lines in beautiful brown-green curtains. Mussels and scallops eat the kelp; farther down on the ocean floor, Smith cultures oysters and clams. His system elegantly provides nourishment to the creatures here. The kelp thrives on excess nitrogen in the water that otherwise would contribute to dead zones. Mollusks filter out phytoplankton and also reduce polluting nitrates. And the farm is a great habitat for fish like striped bass, porgies, and flounder. 

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Smith grows kelp on hanging lines in beautiful brown-green curtains.

Arable farmland and freshwater resources are limited, observes Smith. “If we’re going to live sustainably, we have to move out to sea,” he says, “and do it in a way that fits the future.”