Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast where we talk about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we make those things happen.
Ayana: So Alex, back when we were first discussing this podcast, when it was but the barest seed of an idea in our minds, I knew that I definitely wanted us to interview this fascinating fisherman Bren Smith.
Alex: And I was like, "Fascinating fisherman? I'm in."
Ayana: [laughs] It is not a hard sell. He's so much fun to talk to. He's got an amazing life story, and we got him to share it with us. Bren told us he grew up in Newfoundland, Canada, in a small town called Maddox Cove.
Bren Smith: It's the most eastern point in all of North America. You know, our houses were bolted to the cliffs up above the ocean. And you can imagine, they were red, green, yellow, orange houses, all painted with leftover boat paint. And, you know, the saying around town was that we paint 'em bright colors so we can find our way home drunk in the fog.
Bren Smith: And it was just like the idyllic town. It was, you know, fisherman’s co-op next door, kids selling cod tongues door to door, squid runs, capelin runs. It was just sort of, you know, when we think of that artisanal small-scale fishery, that's where I grew up.
Alex: I think idyllic. I also think cold in the winter.
Bren Smith: Well, if you're a coward.
Alex: [laughs] Which I am.
Bren Smith: No, I mean definitely, you know, like, I remember one year the snow was above our doorway, and we had to, like, open it and dig from the inside. So yeah, and we'd put out jeans and towels and they'd crack in the ice. So yeah, it was definitely cold.
Ayana: How did you get your first taste of fishing?
Bren Smith: It was on the cliffs with my dad. We had this thermos of tomato soup, and it was storming, it was, like, just blowing. It must have been blowing like 30 or 40. So we didn't catch anything forever. And then my dad told me this was my last cast. And so I cast and I caught a fish. I caught this beautiful cod. And so it was this—it was like my first time was a really positive fishing experience. I got a picture on my wall of that fish.
Alex: How old were you then?
Bren Smith: I don't know. Four or something?
Alex: Oh, wow.
Ayana: And you were like, this is my job now.
Bren Smith: Yeah.
Ayana: This is what I'm doing.
Bren Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Ayana: So Alex, you know my mom's family is also from Newfoundland. My grandfather grew up fishing in those same waters.
Alex: That's crazy.
Ayana: Yeah, pretty cool.
Alex: Yeah, but of course, that's not the reason we're talking to Bren today, your shared family histories.
Ayana: No, that's totally tangential.
Ayana: I wanted to talk to Bren because I think he represents this sort of philosophical transformation that I think we really need to see and foster more broadly, right? So he started out as a commercial fisherman who went from not really thinking about climate change at all, to being at the leading edge of a whole new industry that's developing as part of the solution.
Alex: And his transformation, it took a long time, right? It took him a long time to see climate change even as a threat, and then to find his place as part of the solution.
Ayana: He's like the poster child for trial and error as a viable approach to making your way through the world. [laughs]
Alex: As a lifestyle choice. [laughs] And Bren, he criss-crossed the country. He lived in trailers, tents, he worked on different boats of one kind or another. And it took a natural disaster for him to fully comprehend the threat of climate change, and for him to finally arrive at the solution he hit on for himself. And this solution, Bren thinks it could be a solution not just for him but for many, many people, thousands, possibly millions of people up and down the coastlines of North America, and even the world.
Ayana: That solution is seaweed.
Alex: [laughs] Seaweed!
Ayana: So today, how seaweed can play a role in addressing climate change, and how Bren Smith became its unlikely evangelist. That's coming up, after the break.
Alex: Okay, so before we launch into this episode, we just want to say Bren's a fisherman. And not to stereotype, but sometimes the language gets a little salty.
Alex: Get it? And so we just want to sort of like, warn listeners that there is one bad word in this episode: a synonym for poop.
Ayana: And some, like, sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Alex: Yep. So nothing crazy but, you know, just to be warned. All right, so let's begin Bren's story in that town of Maddox Cove where he spent his childhood. And back then, when he was a kid, he didn't think about climate change, he didn't think about seaweed. He thought a lot about the local fishermen, because he idolized them.
Bren Smith: You know, being a fisherman, right? Like, they get up in the morning, you see them going out on their boats. They own their own boats. No bosses, self-directed lives. They just go over this horizon where there's just no rules. You get to live wild. They're some of the last, you know, hunters on Earth, and you get to feed your community. I mean, that is like, you know, a great job, you know? And keep me out of the cubicles. Give me that any day.
Ayana: But Bren's early dreams of becoming a fisherman, those were squashed by his parents. When he was in his early teens, his family decided it was time to move back to the US, where they were from.
Bren Smith: So there was actually a vote in the family, my parents and my sister and me, about whether to stay in Newfoundland or come to America, and they ...
Ayana: This is so democratic. I love it!
Bren Smith: Yeah, well I didn't. Because it was three to one vote. Like, I was the only one voting for Newfoundland, and it's actually now why I deeply believe in benevolent dictatorships as opposed to democracy, because that first taste of democracy was just like ruined my life. I mean, when I ended up in the suburbs of Connecticut, it was like a war crime for a kid like me to end up there. And, you know, I ended up in this school, and it just immediately wasn't for me. I think I'm packed full of learning disabilities and the sort of frustration and that anger that comes with, you know, when you have trouble learning like other people and you got to do it on your own terms.
Bren Smith: And I started getting in trouble, started getting arrested, fights. I punched a kid with braces, and I still got the scar right in my middle knuckle. So anyway, I got out of there, and I headed to Lynn, Massachusetts. And Lynn was a pretty rough place. It was called Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin. And went there and worked on a lobster boat. So that was my first commercial job.
Alex: And how old were you at that point?
Bren Smith: I was 14.
Ayana: Oh my gosh!
Alex: 14. So you dropped out of school, and at 14 you were working on a lobster boat?
Bren Smith: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Ayana: And that was pretty much it for Bren. He knew he wanted to live his life as a fisherman. So from Lynn, Massachusetts, he eventually made his way to Alaska, where he worked first in the canneries, and then eventually got on a boat out to the Bering Sea, fishing for crab and for cod.
Alex: And this was in the early '90s, when something really dramatic was happening for cod fisherman on the other side of the continent from where Bren was, off the coast actually of Bren's childhood home of Newfoundland.
[NEWS CLIP: Good evening. The news was expected, but that didn't make it any less devastating. For at least the next two years, much of Newfoundland will lose a way of life. It's a moratorium on fishing for northern cod, a ban that will affect about 20,000 people, and gut the backbone of the Atlantic fishery]
Alex: This is a 1992 broadcast from the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
[NEWS CLIP: The entire area is off limits to cod fishing as of midnight tonight. Small independents, big company trawlers, all will have to pull their nets and dock their boats. It's an unprecedented move prompted by a troubling situation, the lowest level of cod stocks ever recorded.]
Alex: So Bren is on one side of the continent, in the Bering Sea in the Pacific Ocean, fishing for cod, but hearing about the collapse of the cod stocks on the other side of the continent, in the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland.
Bren Smith: Largest layoff in Canadian history. 30,000 people thrown out of work, boats beached, canneries emptied. And it's just devastating to—you know, something that's built up over hundreds of years can—if you don't be a steward of this resource, just can rip communities apart. And for me, that was a sort of wake-up call. I was like, "Okay. Fishing is not going to be a livelihood."
Alex: How were you hearing about it? You're on the Bering Sea. How does the news filter to you? What specifically are you hearing?
Bren Smith: I guess it was a fax machine. I mean, I never saw it because it was in the captain's quarters. But they would get sent out weather and sports and news sometimes. And so that's how I heard of it. The captain told us about it because it was, you know, big news. I was fishing for black cod.
Alex: In the Bering Sea, which is on the other side of the continent.
Bren Smith: Exactly.
Alex: Yeah. And he comes out with a fax paper. What did he say?
Bren Smith: I think it was just pretty, you know, it was, like, short. It wasn't that there was a collapse of the cod fishery. It wasn't framed that way. It was framed as, like, they shut down the cod fishery. There was a "they," right? And that's been one of the issues that we see to this day, like, environmentalists get blamed as opposed to any sort of economic and environmental issues. So it was just real short. It was like they shut down the cod stocks.
Alex: And what did you think when you heard that?
Bren Smith: So for me, it was particular in that it was back home in Newfoundland. It was a place I loved. So it was this mixed consciousness of, like—and, you know, I knew that. It's clear to us. You're working on the boats, and it was unsustainable. I mean, what happened with fishing was World War II technology actually shifted into the industry. And so, you know, whether it was the sonar, radar, the spotter planes going around trying to identify fish stocks, we just got too good at what we did.
Ayana: It was like an arms race to catch the last fish.
Bren Smith: Yeah.
Ayana: And we won.
Bren Smith: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, we're too good at this stuff as humans, finding those efficiencies. Just getting better and better and trying to solve problems.
Ayana: Fish don't really have a chance.
Bren Smith: Exactly. So there was this sort of inkling that this wasn't sustainable.
Alex: What did that feeling feel like to you, like, when you were out there? Like, what was the thought that came into your head as you were thinking that?
Bren Smith: Yeah. I mean, you just see a lot of dead stuff around you, you know? We work on the draggers, you haul up all those fish, you only got permits for, say, cod, and you throw back everything else. And a whole bunch of it's dead. It's—bycatch is the famous problem. And Ayana knows so much about this.
Ayana: Yeah, all of that bycatch. I mean, the ratio can be really dramatic, right? Sometimes it's like, three to one, where you're throwing back, like, three fish you're not allowed to catch, you don't have permits for, for every one that you keep.
Ayana: Because you're fishing with these huge nets, and the smaller the thing you want to catch, the finer the mesh is, which is just catching everything. And shrimp, it can be like, 10, 20, 30 to one. And you just pick out what you want, and in the time that it takes to pick out the things that you want or are permitted to keep, everything else is just on the deck dying. And you just shove it back overboard.
Bren Smith: Exactly. And Ayana, you'd know this: is it the pressure that kills the fish?
Ayana: Yeah, the pressure is so different at the surface and at the depths at which you're fishing, that you pull the fish up so quickly, they don't have a chance to equalize. So like, all this, like, internal pressure just, like, pushes everything out of them. Their guts can come out, you know? They're not just like, you put them back overboard and they'll be fine. Yeah, it's like scuba diving, right? If you rocket to the surface from a hundred meters deep, that's really bad for you.
Ayana: So fish are going through the same issue of pressure, so that when you pull them up to the surface super quickly.
Alex: They all have the bends.
Ayana: Basically, they'll have the bends, yeah.
Bren Smith: Exactly. So you're on the deck, you're chucking some dead ones over, and you're keeping others. And so you just have these sort of floating rings of death around your boat. It's just so wasteful, you know? It really is. I mean, it is heartbreaking to see.
Alex: And was it heartbreaking for you in the very beginning, or did it become heartbreaking over time for you?
Bren Smith: Oh, that's an interesting question. I think it became over time, and this is why I miss fishing so much. Like, that thrill, the adrenaline, the independence, the lawlessness of it. That feeling of just no eyes on you is just such a wonderful feeling. So I think that's how it—emotionally, that's where I started. But then, yeah, just like, haul after haul, year after year, that's where it really digs away at you.
Bren Smith: You just see that much death at that scale.
Ayana: So there's an important caveat here: the types of commercial fishing Bren is describing, the particularly destructive trawling, and what I was describing with high rates of bycatch, are not something that necessarily always happens in commercial fishing.
Ayana: That's sort of the worst case scenario. And thankfully, regulations have evolved since Bren was fishing. And in general, fishing in the US is actually more sustainable now than it used to be.
Alex: Huh. That's good news.
Ayana: Yeah, it is good news, you know? Policy matters. You gotta change the rules to keep up with the state of the ecosystem.
Ayana: But for Bren at the time, there was this conundrum. He desperately wanted to stay on the sea to make his living, but was becoming increasingly aware that the common ways to do that were not sustainable.
Alex: But he'd been hearing about this thing: aquaculture. Which, what's the layman's term for that, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist?
Ayana: Fish farming.
Alex: Fish farming, yes. And specifically, salmon farming. And so he thought maybe this could be a way for me to stay on the ocean and make a sustainable living. So he decided to give it a try. He found his way back to Newfoundland, and got a job on a salmon farm.
Bren Smith: And it was just terrible. I mean, it was—at that time, this was the early '90s, and just when land-based farming was trying to figure out how to move away from industrial agriculture into some other mode, like, you know, organics, regenerative, things like that, aquaculture borrowed all the lessons, the bad lessons from land-based agriculture and essentially were running pig farms, out at sea.
Bren Smith: You know, just shoveling feed into huge pens, and just salmon shitting everywhere and, like, the use of antibiotics, pesticides. And the fish tasted terrible. And so that was not what I was working for. So I just—I kept searching from there. You know, I was back up in Newfoundland, and I was drinking Guinness and trying to read, you know, environmental reports about aquaculture to put my life, my daily ...
Ayana: [laughs] Just, you know, drinking Guinness and reading environmental reports. I can totally picture you doing this.
Alex: [laughs] Just checking out.
Ayana: I'm just gonna have a beer and nerd out on these government documents.
Bren Smith: But actually, there was a—I remember I applied for a contest. Guinness was giving away a thing where if you came up with a slogan for Guinness, you'd get a free bar in Ireland. And so we all entered and tried to get in. And mine was, "I love Guinness so much, it makes me angry."
Ayana: Did you win?
Bren Smith: I didn't win.
Ayana: Please tell me you won.
Bren Smith: No, not even close.
Alex: That's a good slogan, though.
Ayana: They were looking for a "Guinness is good for you" kind of vibe, probably.
Bren Smith: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Alex: So Bren is sitting there drinking Guinness. He's still young, barely in his 20s. You know, the only thing that's made him happy professionally was being on the ocean. But every time he found a spot for himself there, something would drive him back on land, whether it was the collapse of the fisheries, the moral dilemma of bycatch, or his disenchantment with commercial salmon farming. And so he decided maybe a college education will help. And he enrolled in the University of Vermont planning to major in marine biology.
Alex: Your field. Did you make that decision over a Guinness?
Ayana: No, I was five. I was not yet drinking Guinness at the time.
Alex: Right. Right, right.
Ayana: The Guinness came later for me.
Alex: So anyway, that decision made, he spent the summer making some money fishing in Alaska, and then that fall he flew to the east coast to start his life as a college student.
Bren Smith: And I flew in right out of Dutch Harbor in the Bering Sea. Landed, and I found myself in this dorm full of frat meatheads. And it was just this bizarre thing. I was in this room with this roommate, and I was just like, no freakin' way. So second day, I moved out of the dorm into the golf course. They had—you know, they got woods in golf courses, the fair—I don't know what it's called. Fairway or something? And I built a lean-to and lived there my first semester.
Ayana: Oh my God! [laughs]
Bren Smith: And I gotta tell you, if you want to, like, get lucky in Vermont at UVM, live in a lean-to. Like, all the women just loved it. It was the—I got the most action I ever got in my life, actually, was in that lean-to.
Ayana: Just big pimpin' on the golf course. I love it. [laughs]
Alex: The back to the land mountain man of the UVM golf course.
Bren Smith: Yeah. And I was making bank. Like, I was selling mushroom and acid and dope and stuff to all these, you know, prep school kids and stuff. And, you know, they'd pay anything. So in the lean-to, I had these scales and I'd measure it out, and they'd come and I'd sell it. So I was—you know, and that's how I was paying for school and stuff.
Ayana: Just a hustler.
Bren Smith: I've always wondered, like when I started telling that story, I'm wondering if any of these places are gonna revoke my graduation or my degrees. Like, I'm just waiting for that.
Alex: It just occurred to me, Ayana, like, at this point in the story, I wonder if our listeners are like, wait, how—we seem to be moving further away from a climate solution. [laughs] We started as a fisherman, and now we're dealing drugs out of a lean-to in a golf course.
Ayana: Just trust us. It's all leading somewhere. So don't worry, just stick with us. We're gonna tell you the story of how Bren made it out of that lean-to and back onto the water, which is where we'll meet up with him after the break.
Ayana: Welcome back. We're talking with Bren Smith, a fisherman who spent many years trying to figure out how he could sustainably make a living off the ocean and not be part of causing its further decline.
Alex: And we're talking to him because he took his experience as a fisherman, and after years and years of searching, hit upon a livelihood that also can be a climate solution. And it's a solution that he hopes many other people can pursue like he's doing. And so we left things in a not-very-promising spot: Bren had been forced off the sea again and was dealing drugs out of a lean-to in the middle of a golf course at the University of Vermont.
Ayana: Bren ...
Alex: That's where he was. But now, let's fast forward a couple decades or so, to where he is today.
Bren Smith: We're about a mile off shore, maybe half a mile. Not far at all.
Alex: So Ayana, you know that in the summer of 2020, I donned a mask, grabbed a six-foot-long boom pole to hold a microphone at a proper pandemic distance, and met Bren and went out with him on his boat into the Long Island Sound.
Ayana: I was so jealous that I couldn't join you that day. I mean, I've never been out on a boat with Bren, and I've known him for many years. And I can't believe you got to go before I did. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] I know it sucks, but it was really fun for me. Yeah, he took me out and showed me what he's doing now, and I'm gonna tell you and our listeners all about that. But before I do that, we should fill in the rest of the story, which Bren laid out for me while we were on his boat. So basically, he says, around the time he was living at the University of Vermont on the golf course, he had this epiphany. He realized that, the way we as a society were trying to do seafood at scale, it was backwards because we were working backwards. We're trying to farm the seafood that we used to hunt, like, that we used to catch. Like, wild, large fish that we would catch with nets and fishing lines.
Bren Smith: Everybody ate salmon and tuna, which is a wild palette. So we started growing salmon, tuna, whatever we could, instead of asking the ocean what to grow. And you ask the ocean what to grow and it's just so simple. It says, grow things that don't swim away and you don't have to feed.
Alex: Uh-huh. [laughs]
Ayana: I love it.
Alex: Grow things that don't swim away and you don't have to feed. It really is simple, isn't it?
Ayana: So practical, so wise. Yeah.
Alex: And so with that epiphany, Bren was like, "Oh, I know what I'm gonna farm. Not salmon, oysters!
Ayana: Wait a second. We're supposed to be talking about seaweed. [laughs]
Ayana: You and your detours.
Alex: We also did promise lots of trial and error.
Ayana: We warned you.
Alex: So after graduating from college and bumming around here and there, Bren decided to set himself up as an oyster farmer. He's like, he went out on the ocean, he got himself set up with oyster—what is it, seeds or something? What is it?
Alex: Larva or larvae?
Ayana: Larva is singular, and larvae, V-A-E, is plural.
Alex: All right.
Ayana: You did not know that How to Save a Planet was your go-to for Latin endings refreshers?
Alex: [laughs] And so he got some oyster larvae.
Ayana: Right. So these larval oysters, they actually seek out and then settle on the shells of old oysters. And that's where they decide to put down roots and grow their own shells. And then they accumulate into what's called an oyster reef, as all these oysters start growing essentially on top of each other. And they form what can be these quite large natural structures. And in New York City, in New York Harbor, there used to be, like, billions and billions of oysters that were creating these structures so large that they were navigational hazards.
Ayana: But, you know, because oysters are pretty easy to catch, they don't swim away, pretty easy to over-fish oysters. So there used to be, like, oyster carts on the streets in Manhattan, just like there are now, like, hot dog stands.
Alex: That's amazing.
Ayana: It was like a penny for an oyster.
Alex: That's so crazy.
Ayana: And so it was this really big part of the coastal economy for a bit. And now we have figured out how to farm them instead.
Alex: So he started doing that. He had this oyster bed that he was farming and tending, and that was going okay for a while. But then there was this pretty big problem, which we are familiar with on this podcast, called climate change.
Bren Smith: My oyster farm got wiped out by Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. So two years in a row.
Alex: These hurricanes, they came with these huge storm surges. And the surges swept all this mud and plopped it right on top of Bren's oysters that were on the sea floor, wiping out the crop.
Ayana: And these strong storm surges are exactly what scientists have been predicting we would see more of with climate change. So when Bren saw this happen year after year, he saw it as an alarm bell.
Alex: So before 2011 and 2012 when these hurricanes hit, Bren says that climate change wasn't something he thought that much about. He was thinking about the environmental impacts of fishing and farming, but climate change? It didn't seem like something that would affect him personally. Until his oyster crop got wiped out two years in a row.
Bren Smith: First year you're like, "Oh, okay. That sucks. I'll recover." Two years in a row, you're like, "You know, this isn't a slow lobster boil. This is—climate change is here and now, and those of us on the water are sort of canaries in the coal mine." So that's when—you know, I want to die on my boat, so I wasn't gonna leave the water, but I need to figure out what was more resilient to grow. So like anybody, just hopped online, Google started searching everything I could grow. I typed in "aquaculture in Connecticut," expecting, you know, just oysters to come up. And Charlie's name popped up.
Alex: Charlie is Charlie Yarish, a professor at the University of Connecticut. Have you ever come across him?
Ayana: I don't know him.
Alex: So he's one of these people who's been basically on this quiet quest for decades. And the thing he's been quietly questing about is seaweed farming. His official title is marine phycologist, meaning he studies seaweed. And his big point for a long time is that basically in America, we're thinking about seaweed all wrong. First of all, it's not a weed, it's a vegetable that just happens to grow underwater. And, of course, we should say this fact is widely known in large parts of the world outside the United States. Seaweed is a staple of many, many diets globally, especially in Asia. And seaweed farming is big business. It's a $6-billion industry globally. There are huge seaweed farms all throughout Asia. And what Charlie has been saying is we should try to set up a domestic industry here in the United States. And so when Bren got in touch with Charlie Yarish, Charlie explained all of this to him, and said if we did manage, in the United States to set up our own domestic seaweed industry, the benefits would be enormous.
Ayana: As a marine biologist, I strongly co-sign the benefits of seaweed.
Alex: I knew you would. Let's dive in!
Ayana: So first of all, seaweed is tasty and nutritious, and it fits with Bren's rule about what to farm in the ocean. Kelp does not swim away, and you don't have to feed it. The variety that Charlie proposed Bren should grow is called sugar kelp, which is native to Long Island Sound, and it doesn't require any fertilizer or anything. It just sucks up photons from the sun and nutrients from the ocean and does photosynthesis.
Alex: Another advantage is you can grow kelp on these long ropes that are attached to buoys. And so the kelp is growing off of the sea floor, and it doesn't get buried by storm surges like Bren's oysters did. And when you grow kelp, you can grow lots of other things along with it, sort of on the same lines that you're growing your kelp on. Bren calls this 3D ocean farming. He's told you about this, right?
Ayana: Yeah, I first learned about it with the term "polyculture." Like, the opposite of monoculture. Like, you're growing a bunch of different species in the same place. And the thing that's different between farming the ocean and farming on land is that when you're farming on land, you just have, like, this one surface, right?
Ayana: But in the ocean, you have this third dimension, which is depth. And you can farm seaweed that's hanging down from these ropes between buoys at the surface, you can farm oysters down at the bottom. You can farm mussels that are hanging down on ropes. And so you can kind of use every different depth level to grow something. Like scallops hanging in these baskets. And it's really cool. So you can produce all this food in a pretty small surface area of the ocean because you can farm it top to bottom.
Alex: And the hope is if this type of 3D ocean farming catches on, it can shift some of our food production off of the land and into the sea. You know, because on the land, agriculture can have a pretty profound environmental effect, since it relies so heavily on herbicides and pesticides and fertilizers.
Ayana: Some kinds of agriculture.
Alex: Yeah, a lot. Yeah.
Ayana: See our previous episodes on regenerative farming.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. It doesn't have to, but in many places it still does. But in this kind of ocean farming, you don't need any of that stuff, right? Like, the kelp plus the other things that you're growing, like the oysters and scallops and mussels, they just feed on the nutrients already in the water. And there was one other huge, huge benefit to seaweed farming: seaweed is a climate solution.
Ayana: There's actually four ways that seaweed can help us address climate change. So first and foremost, it's a plant that does photosynthesis. So it's absorbing carbon dioxide, which is great. The second thing is that, as these seaweed underwater plants are absorbing all this carbon dioxide, that's actually helping to address ocean acidification. So over the last century, all of these fossil fuels that we've burned have released all this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Ayana: And the ocean has actually absorbed about a third of that CO2, which has led to the ocean now being 30 percent more acidic than it was 150 years ago.
Ayana: And this just blows my mind that we have changed the pH of the entire ocean.
Alex: That's crazy.
Ayana: We have changed the chemistry of seawater globally. And this has all sorts of effects, from making it harder for shellfish to grow their shells, making it hard for fish to smell their way home or smell predators. And so the seaweed, by absorbing some of that carbon, is actually locally helping to mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification. So that's great. And then number three, having these kelp forests, these seaweed farms out there means that when a storm comes, the storm surge hits the seaweed before it hits the shoreline, and it actually serves as a physical barrier to protect the coast. It lessons the impact of storms.
Alex: And in a world where warming makes storm surges bigger and more damaging, this could actually make us more resilient to those effects.
Ayana: Yeah, it could protect us a little bit.
Ayana: And then the last one is just that it creates habitat for biodiversity, for all these different species. So there's just more life in the ocean, because fish and crabs and snails and worms and all these things, they just like to have something to live on or hide under or hang out near. And so it's just more habitat. So that's great too. So basically, I'm super into seaweed. I don't know if that was obvious or not. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] Noted.
Ayana: Lots of reasons that we want to be focusing on seaweed instead of fishing large wild fish.
Alex: Yes. And the more Bren was learning about all of this from Charlie Yarish and others, the more he realized that this was his next move. This was the move that would allow him to stay on the sea and to be part of the solution to climate change which, you know, had in part driven him off his oyster farm. Bren decided, "I will become a kelp farmer." And it was this very kelp farm that Bren was showing me on the day I went to visit him.
Bren Smith: Oh, can you—do you mind handing me that tote? I need another barrel there.
Alex: We were on one of those working fishing boats, you know, it's like 25 feet long, really sturdy, lots of barrels and ropes. And we were looking at a farm, but I can't stress enough how much this farm did not look like a farm. [laughs] You know what it looked like? Water.
Ayana: Yeah. Some buoys.
Alex: Yes. Yes, like, open water, some buoys, and that was pretty much it. But the farm was there, it was just underwater. At one point, Bren leaned over the edge of the boat, and he grabbed this big rope that was attached to one of those buoys, cut it loose, and he started dragging it onto his boat. And attached to the rope were these long vines of kelp.
Bren Smith: So I'm just hauling a wall of kelp up onto the boat so I can cut it and weigh it and then put it in these barrels.
Ayana: I can totally picture this, like, you and Bren with your masks on, you with, like, your boom microphone, being like, "What is coming out of the ocean?"
Alex: Yeah. [laughs] And, like, he's dragging these huge, like, lines with this rope, and the kelp it sort of like grows down from the rope. So if you were, like, underwater scuba diving around, you would see these rows of kelp, just sort of going the opposite way, growing down.
Ayana: Like curtains hanging down.
Alex: Yeah, like curtains hanging down. And that is the harvest. That is what Bren is farming.
Bren Smith: So this is a wall of kelp. This is a sugar kelp. It's what we grow here. It's native to Long Island Sound. And you can see the blades are—I don't know, some of them are, like, probably 10 feet long. You got these beautiful stipes. I don't know if you've ever tasted a stipe before. I don't know if you want to.
Alex: So ...
Ayana: Stipe is like the stem of a kelp plant.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, if you think about, like, a kale leaf. You know, the stem from the kale leaf that attaches it to the stalk. There's like that's sort of—I guess, sort of the stipe. And he basically hands me this—he snips one off with his knife and hands it to me. And so, you know, I'm a good guest. I'm not gonna refuse an offer of food.
Ayana: Intrepid. Intrepid taste tester. I mean, it's a plant, so ...
Alex: That's right.
Ayana: It's not like organ meats or something.
Alex: Yeah. I lowered my mask and I tried it.
Alex: Oh, that's really good.
Bren Smith: Yeah, right? Who would've guessed?
Alex: I mean it tastes, like, salty and ...
Bren Smith: Yep.
Alex: It's like a salted carrot or something.
Bren Smith: Yeah, exactly. Okay, so now I'm gonna weigh it. You always weigh your own stuff, because you never trust a processor. Learned that in fishing.
Alex: Bren takes this big barrel filled with kelp that he's pulled up and hefts it onto this scale. And then he radios back to his co-worker on shore and reads off the numbers.
Bren Smith: Hey, Jill, are you there?
Jill: I'm here.
Bren Smith: Okay, I'm gonna give you some weights. So first tote is 48 pounds.
Bren Smith: She just say 48?
Bren Smith: Okay.
Ayana: Is 48 pounds a lot of kelp? I have no idea.
Alex: 48 pounds is like a big barrel. It's like one of these ...
Ayana: It's like an oil drum size? Which is the worst analogy, but you know.
Alex: Yeah, one of these big plastic barrels.
Ayana: How many pounds of it had you eaten before he weighed it? Did you really, like ...
Alex: [laughs] I'd just eaten that one bite of ...
Ayana: ... make a dent in the harvest?
Alex: I was not gonna—I didn't want to cut into his margins.
Ayana: Just a nibble?
Alex: But speaking of margins, like, Bren actually sort of went over the finances and, you know, it's hard to make a living as a farmer but, like, one advantage of 3D farming is that, like, the start-up costs, like, how much it takes to get set up? It's not that much. It's actually really affordable.
Bren Smith: I don't have to go out that far. My land's cheap. Out here it's cheap. You know, $20,000 to start a farm. You can see it's just ropes, buoys, strings and some anchors, right? I don't have to fight gravity. I don't need gigantic structures, because everything just floats. It's cheap to do, makes it replicable, makes it scalable. I have such low overhead. I got, like, almost no fuel, I'm just floating around. And no inputs like fertilizer, feed, things like that.
Alex: How did you buy your farm?
Bren Smith: Yeah, so we don't own this water. We lease it from the town or the state, depending on where it is. This plot is $50 an acre. I got another plot that's $25 an acre. So it's really cheap, which is incredible. But anybody could boat, fish, swim.
Alex: $50 an acre?
Bren Smith: Per year, right? This is why, like, just a regular guy who lived in a trailer for a decade could do this.
Alex: [laughs] By the way, when he's talking about the regular guy who lived in a trailer for a decade, he's referring to himself.
Ayana: That was him.
Ayana: Yeah. He tried to do aquaculture in that trailer too with, like, plastic bins or something crazy like that. He was, like, living in an Airstream, trying to grow fish in Walmart bags. He's, like, tried everything.
Alex: Okay, so seaweed farming? Affordable.
Ayana: Tasty and nutritious? Check.
Ayana: Climate solution? Check. Four checks, for the different ways in which this is a solution. [laughs]
Alex: Check, check, check.
Ayana: Yeah, I'm into it.
Alex: So there's only one problem: here in the United States, there are not a lot of people who want to buy it.
Ayana: [laughs] Oh that. Yeah, kind of a snag.
Alex: The domestic market, as they say, is not very mature.
Ayana: Indeed. Not yet, anyway. There's certainly a robust international market, though. But Bren's goal is to build a bigger industry here in the US. We've got one of the largest ocean jurisdictions of any nation, and Bren sees a domestic kelp industry as a big solution that needs to scale here too.
Alex: Right. Like, if we could get kelp farms like his all up and down the coasts of America, it would help with climate, it would make coastlines more resilient, it could create livelihoods for tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, and it would help move as a society to a more sustainable method of food production. And so, like, lots of good things, but in order for all of it to happen, a lot more people have to want to buy seaweed here.
Alex: Like, there has to be a domestic market. And that is the pretty extreme task that Bren has set for himself. Nothing less than ...
Alex: [laughs] Exactly. Nothing less than exponentially scaling a domestic seaweed industry.
Ayana: And so when Bren started growing his first kelp crops, he was also at the same time starting the work of creating a market for what he was growing.
Alex: Right. And initially the way he did that, he was like, "You know what I need? I need some people who actually know how to cook to, like, start telling people, like, what they can do with this stuff." And so then, Bren did this crazy thing which I think you'll love. And so you know how Bren's a great storyteller, he's got a flair for creating buzz. He was doing these tours of his kelp farm for students from the Yale Sustainable Food Program, and he figured, you know what? These fancy Ivy League kids, they're probably gonna know famous people. And he started asking all these tour groups if they knew any famous chefs who he could enlist in his kelp marketing efforts.
Ayana: Oh, Bren. Of course he did.
Alex: And the Yale kids, they came through for him.
Bren Smith: I had the top 10 chefs in the world out here. I had René Redzepi, David Chang, Alex Atala, they all came out to the farm. And the thing that they said was, "Oh, this doesn't—we haven't tasted something like this before."
Alex: And, you know. Atlantic sugar kelp did eventually start showing up on fancy restaurant menus, but Bren says that as a strategy for actually addressing climate change, courting fancy Brooklyn foodies, he was like, that's never gonna get us there.
Ayana: Too niche.
Bren Smith: Like it can't be this cute thing, right? We've got to think scale. We need to scale the right way through networked production.
Alex: Gotta sell to McDonald's.
Bren Smith: Exactly. Well, McDonald's had a seaweed burger in the early 1990s called the McLean Sandwich and it became the official burger of the National Basketball Association.
Bren Smith: They didn't mention the seaweed, but it was an ingredient. So anyway, so I got kind of soured on the boutique restaurants. It was fine, but there was—like, we're just obsessed with scale because we—once I started doing seaweed, I was like, "Okay, I'm now a climate farmer." Right? And this is my piece of the puzzle. Let's figure it out. So scale became key.
Alex: Scale in order to make this, like, not just a thing that one guy's doing in Connecticut but, like, millions of people could be doing up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Bren Smith: Like, we should be getting just out of this hundred mile acres, we should be getting about two million pounds of kelp. Like, you know, what I think of as a reef, right? 50 small- to medium-sized farms processing all the hatchery rings of buyers and entrepreneurs, and then you replicate that, right?
Alex: All right. So that's the vision, right?
Alex: And that brings us to today where Bren is today. He is, like, actually trying to fully scale kelp. He says that, like, a lot of people are kelp gardening, and he wants people kelp farming. [laughs]
Ayana: Ooh, I get it.
Alex: That's right. And I think you know this, you've known him longer than I have, but just from my short time hanging out with him, you become very aware that, like, he's a very savvy marketer. Like, really, really impressively so. And so he said originally when he was, like, sort of pitching kelp, he was like, "It's the new kale!" You know, this formerly forgotten vegetable that now shows up in recipes and menus everywhere.
Ayana: Yeah, one of their slogans was "Kelp is the New Kale."
Alex: Well, he's got a new slogan now. You know what he wants kelp to be now? The new, new thing.
Ayana: I do know, because I read Bren Smith's book called "Eat Like a Fish", and he wants seaweed to be the new soy.
Ayana: Just, like, in everything. As a base, as a substrate, as the sort of neutral but very nutritious thing that you're putting into stuff.
Alex: Yes. And soy is one of those foods. Like, almost all of us are consuming soy all the time without really knowing it, because it's an ingredient in so many things like processed foods, animal feeds, vegetable-based packaging, it's in all this stuff. And Bren wants kelp to be that. He wants kelp to go far beyond what it is in the US today, beyond this specialty item that you can find in Asian grocery stores and occasional artisanal hipster spots. He wants to turn it into something that is everywhere. And not even just in food, but an ingredient in cosmetics and sustainable packaging and bio plastic. Everywhere.
Ayana: But, you know, without all the problems that soy has, that have led to it being sort of the poster child for big ag and the way that it degrades soil and overuses pesticides and all that bad stuff.
Alex: Exactly. He just wants the market to be the same size as the market for soy and soy products. That is how big he thinks the market for kelp has to get to enable the transition he imagines. And so he is working with people to figure out how can we make kelp into the new soy. Which is essentially asking the question, what can we do with this stuff, right? What is kelp good at?
Ayana: [laughs] Yeah.
Alex: And he's enlisting other folks in trying to find the answer to that question: what else is kelp good for? So Bren harvested all this kelp, right, that day. He came back, he had, like, five huge plastic barrels packed full of kelp, over 500 pounds of it. And he rolled the barrels off the boat, up onto the dock where there were these two dudes waiting to pick it up. Their names were Casey Emmett and Craig Wilson, and they were with a group called The Crop Project.
Alex: So you guys are the next link in the chain.
Casey Emmett: We're the next link in the chain. So we've got a pickup truck filled with five barrels of about 579 pounds of Atlantic sugar kelp, and farmed from Bren Smith's farm.
Alex: So Ayana.
Alex: Do you want to know what these guys have to do with building the massive domestic industry for kelp that will allow Bren Smith to unleash his climate saving plan on the world?
Ayana: I mean, how could I resist?
Alex: Good. You have to wait 'til next episode. A two-parter everyone!
Ayana: Our first cliffhanger? This is so exciting!
Alex: And so in the next episode we'll follow Casey and Craig as they try to figure out what to do with five barrels and 579 pounds of Bren Smith's just-farmed sugar kelp.
Ayana: How are they gonna create a new industry and demand for this product in the US? Like, what are we gonna do with all this kelp?
Alex: And actually, we the staff of How to Save a Planet, we get in on some of that R and D action ourselves and start experimenting in our own research facilities, aka our kitchens.
Ayana: Come join us in our test kitchens.
Alex: [laughs] To see what we can do with kelp. And in the meantime, while you're waiting for that next episode to drop, here are some calls to action.
Ayana: So you can check out Bren Smith's book, which is called "Eat Like a Fish." I read it. I loved it. Pick it up from your local bookstore.
Alex: Also, you should check out Bren's organization called GreenWave. It's a non-profit devoted to fostering a domestic seaweed industry, and it's got lots of really cool resources on the site. Perhaps you want to learn how to become a seaweed farmer yourself, or sponsor a farmer, or just learn more about seaweed farming. Also, there is a way to support the work that is happening on GreenWave on that site, if you just want to sort of contribute and help. All of that is at Greenwave.org.
Ayana: And I should—for full disclosure—say that I am on the board of GreenWave. I am that big of a fan of seaweed and their vision of, you know, hundreds of ocean farms dotting the coasts and providing all these great local jobs and this nutritious, environmentally-friendly food that I'm, like, literally volunteering my time to help make this dream come true. And if you're excited about this burgeoning industry of ocean farming and you want to start your own hatchery or farm or underwater garden, we'll have a link to some do-it-yourself materials in our newsletter and in the show notes.
Ayana: And we get a bunch of emails here at How to Save a Planet from listeners who are really engaged in climate topics, and are young and trying to figure out what they want to do to start off their careers in climate solutions. So for those of you thinking about what even to study in college, you can actually get a degree in aquaculture. You could study ocean farming, whether that's the science side or the policy side or the economics of it. You can be a part of this. For links to resources, for more information about all of this stuff, that's all in our newsletter, which you should sign up for. You'll get a little treat in your inbox every week. You can sign up at howtosaveaplanet.show.
Alex: And if you take any of our suggested actions, let us know about it. Send us an email, or better yet record yourself on a voice memo and send us that. We're at email@example.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram, @how2saveaplanet. That's How—the number two—Save a Planet.
Ayana: Oh, and if you like the show, and a bunch of you we know are coming back week after week to see, like, what else are we gonna talk about, please make sure to give us a review. Like, shower us with stars and maybe a few nice words.
Alex: And don't keep us a secret. Share us with your friends.
Alex: All right. Should we do the credits?
Ayana: I'm ready.
Alex: Take it away.
Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg.
Ayana: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our intern is Ayo Oti. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Alex: Sound design and mixing by Sam Baer and Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard and Emma Munger. Our fact checker this week is Sarah Craig.
Ayana: Special thanks to Liana Coviello, Jill Pegnataro, Krizl Soriano and Sam Garwin.
Alex: Sea(weed) you next week.
Ayana: Oh, Alex. Am I allowed to fire you for that?
Ayana: It's so bad.