By Jeremy Brecher,
Senior Strategic Advisor, LNS Co-Founder

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Last year Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called for “A Blue New Deal for our Oceans.” Since then, there have been many additional proposals for a Blue New Deal–including measures that President Joe Biden could implement by executive order. Here’s the backstory of the Blue New Deal.  

Above: Sen. Elizabeth Warren from the October 2019 climate town hall. Author: CNN Collection.

During CNN’s Democratic presidential town hall on the climate crisis in September, a one-time oysterman from Connecticut told candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

My farm was destroyed by two hurricanes. Now warming waters and acidification is killing seed, coast to coast and reducing yields. Those of us that work on the water need climate solutions, and we need them now. The trouble is, the Green New Deal only mentions our oceans one time. This is despite the fact that our seas soak up more than 25% of the world’s carbon. So what’s your plan for a Blue New Deal for those of us working on the ocean? How do we make sure we can make a living on a living planet?[1]

Shortly thereafter Elizabeth Warren, citing Smith’s statement, announced her proposal for a Blue New Deal.

The one-time oysterman was Bren Smith, pioneer of a new approach to farming the ocean. His recent book Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer[2] portrays the school of hard knocks in which he developed his new form of “horizontal ocean farming”–and his vision for addressing both climate and jobs crises through restorative ocean polyculture. (Disclosure: Bren Smith was a founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability.)

Above: Feature of Bren Smith by World Wildlife Fund for Nature.

Smith grew up in Newfoundland, and succumbed early to the lure of the sea. He dropped out of school and worked on arctic trawlers, loving the hard living life of sex, drugs, and the rock-and-roll of the ocean. He tried everything on land from working for a congressman and delivering lumber to making small wood pieces and peddling them at art fairs, but was never completely satisfied as a landlubber. In the early 2000s he learned the town of Branford, Conn. was selling leases for oyster grounds off the Thimble Islands in Long Island Sound. He leapt at the chance.

Smith’s 20-acre lease cost a thousand dollars a year; his boat and gear a few thousand more. Soon he was breaking even and looked forward to making a living from the sea. But he learned that the hazards of his new occupation included not just those of a fisherman but also those of a farmer. His entire operation was wiped out by Hurricane Irene and then again by Superstorm Sandy. Smith knew that these were symptoms of global warming, and that they and other symptoms were only going to get worse.

At first he despaired of ever making a living on the water again, but then began figuring out how he could design an oyster farm that could be lowered into the sea to protect it from an approaching storm. The design was cheap and simple: basically, vertical ropes hung from buoys at the top and attached to a cement anchor at the bottom, with horizontal ropes attaching the vertical ones and additional buoys that allowed the level of the horizontal ropes to be shifted down–and thereby protected from future storms. The oysters would be grown at the deepest level. But since the vertical ropes were there, Smith wondered why not grow other “crops” at other levels of the water column? His oystering operations had often been encumbered by clams, seaweed, and other forms of “biofouling.” He began hanging containers filled with “seed” for mollusks and spores for seaweed on his vertical lines. And thus was invented what has come to be known as vertical or “3D” ocean farming.

Smith quickly figured out that vertical ocean farming could provide many benefits. The oysters and other mollusks, before they ever graced the dinner table, filtered massive amounts of nitrogen out of the water–including the fertilizer runoff from on-land farming. But the biggest ecological star turned out to be the common seaweed called kelp. It can absorb five times more carbon than land-based plants and requires zero inputs–making it “the most sustainable form of food production on the planet.” Smith began a campaign around the slogan “kelp is the new kale.” He recruited celebrity chefs and major institutional food buyers to start including kelp in their offerings.

When he started a modest Kickstarter campaign, Smith was overwhelmed by a million contacts a month. He saw the possibility not only of a new industry but of a movement that could make that industry very different from the usual corporate start-up model. With “help” from wealthy investors and hired financial experts he started a company call Sea Green Farms – only to find them demanding long-term control and super-profits in exchange for investment up front. Disgusted with the deviation from his animating values, Smith walked away from the company he had helped to start.

Instead of a centralized, capital-intensive model Smith’s nonprofit GreenWave has developed an “open source” model where anyone with a boat and $20,000 can start their own farm. At the end of Eat Like a Fish, Smith lays out “principles of regenerative ocean agriculture.” They might be considered the lessons from his school of hard knocks–and the guidelines for the “Blue New Deal.”

Smith calls for a “circular” economy that coordinates different activities through decentralized networks rather than conventional corporate vertical integration. He envisions regional “reefs” of 50 small farms each, “clustered around a seafood hub and hatchery, surrounded by a ring of institutional buyers and entrepreneurs.”

A central objective is to keep ocean farming affordable, especially for former fishermen, Native Americans, and others who have been excluded or extruded from mainstream employment. That means keeping the cost of entry low (currently $20,000 and a boat); limiting the number of acres any one entity can hold; and requiring living wages and employment open to all.

From the time of the Roman Empire’s Justinian Code, the oceans are owned by all, and Smith wants to keep it that way. Ocean farmers own their businesses, but the ocean will remain a commons. A network of “sea trusts,” modeled on land trusts, will provide community control of ocean farms, areas reserved for wild fisheries, and surrounding conservation zones; the sea trust commons will be open for all to boat, fish, and swim.

In Smith’s vision, marketing coops and other vehicles like collective bargaining over prices, forward contracts, risk-sharing between farmers and consumers, and collateral-free loans will provide farmers a fair and stable economic environment. Ocean farmers will be compensated for the environmental “positive externalities” they provide when their seaweed and mollusks absorb  carbon, nitrogen, and heavy metals. They will use embedded sensors and cyberfish to understand and regulate the underwater environment. Live tracking will monitor ocean products from farm to consumers. Certification procedures will ensure that production is not only sustainable but regenerative, requiring water quality testing, traceability, labor standards, and cultivation of regenerative crops. Collective institutions like shared research, training, and finance will provide shared benefits and thereby support an ethos of collaboration. The result will be not monoculture but “polyculture”–a rich mix of useful and ecologically appropriate activities based on on-going evaluation of what is healthiest for the ecosystem to grow.

GreenWave aims to support the development of ten regional reefs with 50 farms each over the next five years. Can it happen? In New England there are now thirty new seaweed farms, half-a-dozen hatcheries, and two thousand acres zoned for ocean farming. GreenWave is supporting new reefs in California, New York, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Europe. Thousands of women and men aspire to become ocean farmers. But reaching ocean farming’s full potential will require that the principles Smith lays out actually get implemented. That’s why the Green New Deal needs to incorporate the ideas–and ideals–of the Blue New Deal.

[1] Arter, Melanie. (2019, September 5). Sen. Elizabeth Warren: ‘We Need a Blue New Deal as Well.’ CNS News.