An Ex-Industrial Fisherman Rethinks His Job

“It’s not just about: How can we save the oceans? But we also need to flip our way of thinking and ask: How can the oceans save us?”

Diane Ackerman | The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us | W. W. Norton & Company | September 2014 | 16 minutes (3,877 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from the book The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us, by Diane Ackerman, as recommended by Longreads contributor Dana Snitzky.

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“Mariculture,” I say, floating the image of a vertical ocean garden in my mind, as I climb into a heavy, buoyant, safety-orange worksuit designed for extended periods on cold water.

“Think of it as 3D farming that uses the entire water column to grow a variety of species,” Bren Smith says, closing his own suit over a black-and-red-checked flannel shirt and jeans, zipping the fish teeth of ankle zippers, and latching the belt. This is just the beginning of his vision for an elaborate network of small, family-owned, organic, and sustainable aquafarms arranged along the East Coast—oysters in beds under curtains of kelp—to help subdue storm surges while also providing food and energy to local communities.

Climate change is especially hard on fishermen and on farmers. The thirty-nine-year-old seaman sitting across from me in a dinghy on a frostbitten morning in Stony Creek, Connecticut, is both. Bren has a slender build with powerful arms and shoulders, a sign of his rope-heaving, cage-hauling trade. Although he now shaves both face and head, his plumage for years was natural red hair and long beard, hints of which remain. With his flame-orange watch cap, cinnamon five-o’clock shadow, and rusty-blond eyebrows, he is a study in reds, the long wavelengths of visible light.

We’re not anticipating a stumble overboard, but like many a fisherman Bren doesn’t swim, and the suit adds needed warmth through high winds and snow-thunder in the recent cannonade of winter storms.

A perennial mariner, he grew up in Petty Harbour, a five-hundred-year-old Newfoundland town with eleven painted wooden houses filled with fisherfolk and a salt-peeled wharf with jostling boats. On the rocky shore, a boy could find lobster cages, floats, anchors, ropes, seaweed-tangled shells, fish and bird skeletons, and tall tales. So it’s not surprising that, at fifteen, he dropped out of high school and ran away to sea. In Maine he worked on lobster boats, in Massachusetts on cod boats, and in Alaska’s Bering Strait on trawlers, longliners, and crab boats. At one point he factory-fished for McDonald’s.

“Do you think of yourself as a fisherman or a farmer?” I ask.

“A farmer now. It’s more like growing arugula than facing the dangers of the sea—which, believe me, I’ve seen.”

In a sense 3D farming is rotational agriculture. Bren harvests kelp in the winter and early spring; red seaweed in June and September; oysters, scallops, and clams year-round; mussels in the spring and fall. At least that’s the theory. Hurricane Irene tore up his oyster beds, which he promptly reseeded, knowing he’d have to wait two more years for harvest. Hurricane Sandy smothered the oyster beds yet again. Clams have a better chance of surviving a hurricane because they at least have a strong foot and can move a little. But oysters really are trapped. They don’t even move to eat or mate. Without the reefs, storm surges churn them up, and as the silt smothers the oysters they die, beginning the slow process of joining the fossil record. Right along with the Model Ts that sank when the Long Island Sound froze over in 1917–1918 and foolhardy souls tried driving across it.

“Ironically,” Bren says thoughtfully, “I may be one of the first green fishermen to be wiped out by climate change.”

But Bren is upbeat and confident. Fortunately, he was able to harvest some mussels in the thick of a snowstorm, just before Blizzard Nemo hit. Kelp, at least, is a post-hurricane-season crop. After Sandy he began planting the year’s kelp, and now, in mid-February, it’s nearly ready for harvest.

Unmooring the dinghy, Bren hops back in, and we motor out to his solar-powered fishing boat, placid as a tiny icebreaker half a mile offshore. En route, we weave through the Thimble Islands, an archipelago of islets, some with majestic cliffs of 600-million-year-old pink granite. Many are topped by stilted, turreted, luxe storybook houses with long wooden staircases winding down to the water.

Thimble Islands. Photo by slack12

Thimble Islands. Photo by slack12

A receding glacier left behind this spill of islands: massive granite knobs, stepping-stone slabs, and submarine boulders and ledges, some of which only appear at low tide. Named after wild thimbleberries, not thimble-sized cuteness, the cluster includes Money Island, Little Pumpkin, Cut-in-Two Island, Mother-in-Law Island, Hen Island, and East Stooping Bush Island, among many others—between 100 and 365 (depending on the height of the tide, how you define an island, and if you cherish the idea of an island for each day of the year), with around twenty-three of them inhabited by people during the summer. Harbor seals and birds abound. Each island is cloaked in its own gossip and lore, thanks in part to famous sojourners, from President Taft to Captain Kidd and Ringling Brothers’ Tom Thumb.

The Human Age

The Human Age

As saltwater and river water mix in the estuary, it offers a feeding and breeding refuge to 170 species of fish, 1,200 species of invertebrates, and flocks of migratory birds. Horse and Outer islands are wildlife preserves. For Bren it’s a fertile garden visited in summer by flocks of seasonal guests and in winter by tumultuous storms, but always spawning life above and below the surface. Today, in arc-light winter, with a chill wind slicing around the water streets, the garden is icy-blue and glaring, with air that’s clear as a bugle call.

“The granite cliffs are amazing,” I say, inhaling their feline beauty. Flecked with velvet-black biotite and streaks of cream and gray quartz, in the speckled sunlight, with the boisterous sea slapping at their base, they look more animal than mineral.

“It’s the same pink granite that helped build the Statue of Liberty,” Bren explains, “and the Lincoln Memorial and the Library of Congress. In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the architect stands at the edge of a local granite quarry . . .”

“Full of capitalist machismo, as I recall.”

“Exactly!” Bren says, blue eyes flashing. “I came here in part to erase that image and that extreme ideology.”

I know the passage he means, the one in which Howard Roark, clothed only in his grandiosity, stands above the quarry, with all of nature his raw material, something to be devoured by the few powerful men who deserve to rule the world:

These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.

“I pillaged the seas,” Bren admits in a conscience-stricken voice. “When I look back over my life, I see it as a story of ecological redemption. I was a kid working thirty-hour shifts, fishing around the clock, and I absolutely loved it because I got to be on the open sea. But, you know, we scoured the ocean floor, ripping up whole ecosystems. We fished illegally in protected waters. I’ve personally thrown tens of thousands of dead bycatch back into the sea. It was the worst kind of industrial fishing.”

There was a time when cod grew large enough to swallow a child. But fishermen have been systematically harvesting the largest fish, and the cod had to mate earlier and at a smaller size to survive as a species. The successful ones passed on their genes. Now a cod will fit on a dinner plate. Soon there will only be small fish in the sea. In the process of reducing them we’ve also remodeled our vision of cod—from a behemoth that could feed a whole family to a small and harmless fish. Even those are vanishing, along with other marine life forms, in one of the greatest mass extinctions ever to befall the planet. For Bren, the whole foraging, hunter-gatherer mentality has led to decades of what he thinks of as a kind of piracy, minus the romance.

“I went back to Newfoundland once it was clear to me that fishing like that wasn’t sustainable. I loved the sea and I could see the destruction, and I became much more conscious of the ecosystem. After that I went to work on some of the salmon farms, but I saw the same sort of industrial farming. Not good for the environment, and not good for people. Wild fishing and farming fish—neither one was sustainable. The sea was in my soul; I knew I needed to work on the sea. But I was part of a new generation that wanted something different. So how could I evolve into a green fisherman, I wondered?

“I ended up here in Long Island Sound right at the time there was a movement to bring young fishermen under forty back into the fisheries. They opened up shellfish grounds. You see, it’s very hard to get shellfish grounds because they’re all owned by about six families going back generations. But when they opened up these grounds ten years ago, I came and started aquafarming. I thought, okay, on this sixty-acre plot of ocean, what species can I choose that will do several things to create sustainable food in a good way? And can I think beyond that and actually restore the ocean while we’re farming it, and leave the world better than we started, but also grow great food?

“Suddenly I found myself growing food in the most efficient, environmentally sustainable way possible—vertically. And it grows quickly. The kelp will grow eight to twelve feet in a five-month period. And the whole food column is nourishing. The oysters, mussels, and scallops provide low-fat protein and all sorts of important vitamins: selenium, zinc, magnesium, iron, B vitamins, omega-3s. We’ve analyzed the sea vegetables—different forms of algae like kelp—and they create lots of vitamins and minerals and nine different amino acids, plus omega-3s. Could you actually have something called ‘ocean vegetarianism’? I think so. During World War II, both the Germans and the British came up with this plan to deal with starvation, which they thought was going to be a huge risk in World War II, and actually they did all these studies and began feeding people algae. There’s also some modern research that if you created a network of small seaweed farms around the world that added up to the size of Washington State, you could feed the whole world. Now, you’re not going to get everyone to eat seaweed, but it shows the potential that’s there.

“This is Mookie,” he says, as we pull up to his cobalt-blue fishing boat with a sky-blue cabin door and a white deck sole that must once have matched. Thanks to the rubbing of boots, cages, ropes, and splintery dock, a trifle of paint has worn away to reveal a thin deckle-edge of sky blue.

We climb aboard, hoist anchor, and chug to his patch of ocean, a flowing field dark as gravy. Small gobs of sea spit trail the boat. Gray-and-white herring gulls spiral above, following us as they would any large predator, their yellow eyes hunting for small fish churned up to the surface.

Dropping anchor, we winch up a heavy cage and swing it carefully onto a built-in wooden bench. The cold breeze, snorting and blowing, is full of turning knives. I’m glad of the heavy worksuit, but it’s cumbersome and my movements feel moonwalk slow.

Bren pops the lid to reveal a vault of about three hundred oysters and a mix of sea creatures, including starfish, small fronds of orange algae, and a necklace of round off-white periwinkle egg capsules that look like buttons of horn or coral.

“Look at this,” he says, slicing an egg open with his teeth and extracting tiny seeds on the tip of a knife blade. “They’re snail eggs, and they actually look like miniature snails.”

Amazingly, they do. Periwinkles, flavorful sea snails, have been part of English, Irish, Asian, and African cuisine for millennia. Clinging to rocks (or oyster cages) to steady themselves, they feed on phytoplankton. But these freeloaders aren’t welcome among the oysters. Nor is the squishy round sea squirt, or the translucent segmented mantis shrimp, or the cascade of olive-green sea grapes, or the broken shells. Back they all return to the sea, except for the mass of tiny open-jawed barnacles encrusting the mesh cages. Those have mortared themselves in place and will have to wait to sink with the oysters.

Gulls swim through the sky as we pour the oysters into shallow bins on a wooden table. Our job today is to “rough up” the oysters—not injure, but stress them so that they’ll form tougher shells. Much as muscles build if you exercise them, oysters thicken their shells when tossed by the tide. Idle oysters need exercise, just as idle humans do. Without struggle, strength won’t grow. The human parallel plays with my mind; then the cold blows the thought away, and I reach for a pair of rubber gloves.

“Knead them like bread,” Bren says, showing me how.

Catching a dozen or so in my open fingers, I roll them forward with the base of my palms, then claw them back gently and repeat the undulating motion. I have become the tide.

“We touch them every five weeks,” he explains, “to make sure they’ll grow strong.”

“It sounds like you feel pretty close to them.”

“They’re like family. I plant them, I’m with them for two years, watch them grow, touch them regularly. I know every oyster personally.”

“By name?”

He laughs. “Not quite. Not yet.”

“They’re really beautiful.” I pause to pick up one of the Thimble Island Salts and look at its deeply cupped shell and golden hue, purple patches, iridescent luster. Some resemble a bony hand, others a craggy mountain range.

When Bren opens one with a knife and offers it to me, I can’t refuse. Oyster-proud, he waits for my response. Not an oyster connoisseur, I just let my taste buds speak: “Incredibly salty, silky, smooth, plump as a mitten. It tastes like a bite of ocean.”

A Proustian memory transports me to the coast of Brittany, in the shadow of Mont Saint-Michel, where people also harvest the sea. There are huge tides there, and the water is very saline—perfect conditions for raising oysters, one of the great delicacies of Brittany. I remember them tasting salty, too, but different, slightly metallic with a whisper of tea and brass. Michel de Montaigne thought oysters tasted like violets. But the flavor of oysters varies depending on their environment, and I’ve read of some that leave an aftertaste of cucumber or melon.

“Good.” He smiles. “If one doesn’t taste good I feel like a failed father.”

Returning the roughed-up oysters to their cage, we lower them back into place, swing the boat around, and check on the kelp dangling from black buoys along a hundred-foot line.

“Walking the line,” Bren says, as he eyes each string of kelp prayer flags, barely visible beneath the cloud-shadowed water. Snagging one up with a red-handled hook, he hoists it out of the water, and I’m surprised to see a long array of curly-edged kelp ribbons, about three inches wide and a yard long, some with faint moiré stripes. Like land plants, kelp photosynthesizes, but not just the leaves, the whole kelp. As a result, it pulls five times more CO2 from the air than land plants do.

A strand feels surprisingly dry and smooth, and sunlight glows through its golden-brown cheek. A longtime staple in Asian cultures, kelp (and other algae) adds depth to Canadian, British, and Caribbean cuisines. It’s also been harvested for medicinal use since ancient times. Suffused with minerals, more than any other food, it harbors most of those found in human blood and benefits thyroid, hormone, and brain health. It also boasts anticancer, anticoagulant, and antiviral properties. It’s the “secret ingredient” in the posh La Mer line of skin creams, among others. Its alginates are used to thicken everything from pudding and ice cream to toothpaste, even the living cells poured by 3D bioprinters.

“Try some,” he says, offering me course two.

I taste a piece of kelp curl, which is chewy and rather tasteless, more texture than flavor, but perfect for noodling with sesame oil or in miso soup, as I’ve often eaten it in Japanese restaurants. Bren sells oysters and kelp to local residents and restaurants and to chefs in Manhattan.

“I think of this actually as ‘climate farming,’” Bren says, “because the kelp soaks up huge amounts of carbon and can easily be turned into biofuel or organic fertilizer. So I’m in conversation with companies, NGOs, and researchers right now. Kelp is over 50 percent sugar. The Department of Energy did a study that showed if you took an area half the size of Maine and just grew kelp, you could produce enough biofuel to replace oil in the U.S. That’s stunning! And without the negatives of growing land-based biofuel, which by the way is actually terrible. It wastes a lot of water, fertilizer, and energy. But here you can have a closed-energy farm, using zero fresh water, zero fertilizer, and zero air, while providing fuel for local communities. I grow this kelp here for food, but you could plant it in the Bronx River or in front of sewage treatment plants, which would reduce their polluting. Or you could grow kelp for biofuels.

“Over the past ten years I’ve been struggling with all of these things and trying to figure out how they could come together. Think about it. Growing food in the ocean: no fertilizer, no air, no soil, no water. None of these things that are hugely energy-intensive and huge climate risks to both freshwater and soil. When you put all of this together it’s so exciting. It’s so exciting! I can almost smell the possibility of a blue revolution joining the green revolution. And because it’s vertical farming, it will have a very small footprint.”

Not everyone agrees with his methods, especially old-style environmentalists, which he’s the first to point out.

“Now there’s a real pushback, of course, from some conservationists, because people think of the oceans as these beautiful wild spaces—which I’m so sympathetic to because I’ve spent my life on the ocean. But we’re facing a brutal new reality,” he says, his face aflame with resolve. “If we ignore the greatest environmental crisis of our generation, our wild oceans will be dead oceans. Ironically, climate change may force us to develop our seas in order to save them. We need to do that and also reserve large swaths of the oceans as marine conservation parks. This won’t solve every problem we’re facing, but it will begin to help.”

Behind all of Bren’s enthusiasm is a wave of widely shared concern about how climate change is acidifying the seas. He’s part of a transitional generation that feels the urgency of reconciling their lifestyle with the planet’s health. Call it what you will, pioneering or bioneering, because of his commitment, he was invited to join the Young Climate Leaders Network, which supports a small group of “innovative leaders and visionaries, including many who operate largely outside of the traditional environmental community, working for climate solutions.”

Bren’s eyes rest on the water. “There’s no doubt, this will mean reimagining the oceans, which is heart-wrenching and controversial for a lot of people who revere the oceans as some of the last wild places on Earth, places untouched by human hands.”

Yet the truth is that oceans are not untouched by human hands. In 2007, owners of the only salmon farm in Ireland woke one day to find its hundred thousand salmon devoured by a horde of jellyfish. Throughout the world’s oceans, trillions of umbrella, parachute, and bell-shaped jellyfish have been swarming, lured by rising temperatures, nutrient-rich agricultural runoff, and pollution. With semitransparent stealth, they sneak up on flounder, salmon, and other large fish favored by human fishermen and colonize a slew of habitats, where they eat or oust the local fish. Oceana Europe, which works to restore and protect the world’s oceans, attributes the soaring number of jellyfish to climate change and the human overfishing of tuna, swordfish, and other natural predators. City-dwellers are combating blooms of jellyfish in Tokyo, Sydney, Miami, and other harbors. During one recent summer, record numbers invaded the shallows of South Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. In Georgia, on one Saturday alone, Tybee Island Ocean Rescue reported two thousand serious stings.

The sea is a spirit level, a pantry, a playground, a mansion rowdy with life, a majestic reminder of our origins, another kind of body (a body of water), and female because of her monthly tides. But her bones are growing brittle, her brine turning ever more acidic from all the CO2 we’ve slathered into the air and all the fertilizer runoff from our fields. While that’s terrible for creatures like coral, oysters, mussels, and clams, whose calcium shells can soften and dissolve, the warmth is a tonic for starfish, which are roaming farther north in throngs. Until, that is, their shellfish prey vanish.

“Environmentalists have been asking the wrong question,” Bren says after a moment. “It’s not just about: How can we save the oceans? How can we protect the sea animals? I agree, all of that’s important. But we also need to flip our way of thinking and ask: How can the oceans save us? How can it provide food, jobs, safety, and a sustainable way of life? I’m convinced the answer is ocean conservation with symbiotic green farms.”

Last thing, we check the remaining crop of mussels, which means back-straining, heave-hauling them up from the depths where they’re filling their mesh socks nicely, growing through the lattices like shiny black buttons, still too small for harvesting. So back they descend, too young for saffron cream sauce. I can see why he finds this part of his workday like checking on a nursery.

Scanning the lapping ripples of the Sound, it doesn’t look like an industrial landscape at all. And yet the amount of food growing below the water is incredible. There are two tons of kelp on Bren’s longlines alone. I like Bren’s “symbiotic” way of thinking. We billions of creative, problem-solving humans don’t have to be parasites in our environment—we have the technology, the understanding, and the desire to become ecologically sustaining symbionts.

On our return to Stony Creek harbor, we again pass the island-perched village of Victorian mansions and salt-white cottages, with stone chimneys for burning up yesterday’s disappointments, rain-rattled windows, sea-spying porches, and wind-worn trees and gardens. And always the deep and dazzling blue of the Sound, with hidden reefs and ledges, devious currents corkscrewing just below the surface, and, during storms, waves running like greyhounds.

The new dock looks trim, clean, and stubbornly well anchored against hurricanes. A pair of black cormorants perches on a rocky knob, and Bren gestures a welcome. Superstition tells of drowned fishermen returning as hungry cormorants, dressed in black rain gear, with webbed feet instead of boots.

Despite the cold breeze there’s a warm afternoon sun. Soon the tide will be walking in and the pink-legged seagulls skimming the shoreline. In a few months the summer crowds will arrive to eat fresh seafood, attend the puppet theater, fall asleep to the slurred voice of the ocean, and enjoy the ecstasy of coastal life and clean water, with time strapped to their wrists.

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Reprinted from The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman. Copyright © 2014 by Diane Ackerman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without prior written permission of the publisher.