3D Ocean Farming

Overfishing, climate change, acidification – our oceans are in peril. But there’s hope…

Farming the Sea: why eating kelp is good for you and good for the environment from Patrick Mustain onVimeo.

Imagine a vertical underwater garden: seaweed and mussels grow on floating ropes, stacked above oyster and clam cages below. Imagine a farm designed to restore rather than deplete our oceans – a farm growing local food but also biofuel and organic fertilizer.

We’re doing it!

Thimble Island Oyster Co. is proud to be one of the first sustainable 3-d ocean farms in the country.Nestled in the Thimble Islands of Long Island Sound, our 40 acre farm uses the entire water column to grow a variety of species — ranging from sugar kelp and oysters to mussels and scallops — and has emerged as a national model for hyper-local sustainable food production, ocean restoration and economic development. Click here to meet Bren, your local ocean farmer.

Although still at a modest scale, our experiment has attracted attention, including from the New Yorker Magazine, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and NPR.

Harvesting sugar kelp

As lifelong commercial fishermen, we know our oceans are in trouble. Overfishing has wiped out 90% of large fish; climate change is driving everything from lobsters to whales northward; nitrogen pollution is triggering ever-expanding dead zones.

But we can turn the tide. Working with Dr. Charles Yarish of UCONN, Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and BRASTEC Sound School, we’ve invented a 3D model of ocean farming designed to grow seaweed and shellfish to provide healthy, local food – but also reduce overfishing, help mitigate climate change and restore ocean ecosystems. Here’s how:

Eat Like a Fish! Growing Local Food to Reduce Overfishing:  We’re re-imagining the dinner plate by eating what fish eat: plants. We’re cooking up kelp linguini and kelp ice cream – even kelp cocktails. Our seaweeds and shellfish are found in some of the best restaurants in New York, including Morimoto, Il Buco, and Louro’s – and we started the first CSF in LI Sound. (Read a profile of our farm in McSweeney’s Lucky Peach)

So it’s fun, but also healthy: our seaweeds contain more protein than soybeans and more calcium than milk. And fish don’t make Omega-3’s – they consume them. So by eating like fish eat, consumers get the same benefits, while reducing pressure on dwindling fish stocks. (Read a profile in the Wall Street Journal or Food52)

Bren harvesting

Scaled up, the potential impact on our food system is mind-blowing. In a 300’ x 300’ plot we can grow 24 tons of seaweed in 5 months. Creating a network of small seaweed farms equaling the size of Washington State could provide enough protein to feed the world. Of course we’re not all going to become ocean vegetarians, but it shows our model can have a real impact on our stressed food systems.

Restoring Our Oceans: Two years ago while out on the boat, a light bulb went off: We realized that millions of years ago, Mother Nature invented two species – kelp and shellfish – designed to restore ocean ecosystems and mitigate climate change. And these are two species we can grow! Here’s how our 3D model is a game-changer:

Kelp & Horseradish Aquavit, Honey, Lemon

  • Climate Change: Carbon is a root cause of acidification, rising water temps and other climate-related threats to our oceans. The kelp we grow — known as the “rainforest of the sea” — absorbs five times more carbon than land-based plants. Our 20 acre farm alone has the potential to remove 134 tons of carbon a year. So we’re not just fishermen – we’re climate farmers.
  • Water Quality: Shellfish and seaweed act as filters, drawing out up 50 gallons of nitrogen a day. While an important nutrient for humans, excess nitrogen from agricultural runoff is creating ever-expanding dead zones in our coastal waters. Kelp and oysters need nitrogen to grow, so our farm – which soaks up to 164 kg of nitrogen a year – is vital for restoring water quality. Then, after we’ve soaked up the nitrogen, we turn our kelp into liquid fertilizer for local organic farmers – thereby closing the nitrogen loop.
  • Biofuel: We’re working with a team of scientists and engineers to grow kelp biofuel. On our farm alone it’s possible to grow up to 2000 gallons of biofuel per acre. According to the US Department of Energy, a network of kelp farms totaling an area ½ the size of Maine could grow enough biofuel to replace all of the oil in the US.
  • Restoring Habitat: The gear we use – ranging from longlines to underwater cages — function as artificial reefs, attracts over 150 species that come to hide, eat and thrive. After a decade of farming, what was once a barren patch of ocean is now a robust ecosystem. Plus our gear functions as storm surge protectors, helping mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events, like the swamping of NYC by Hurricane Sandy.
  • Zero Inputs: Finally, because our crops require no fresh water, no fertilizer and no land — all drawbacks of land-based agriculture — you’d be hard-pressed to find a more sustainable form of food production on either land or sea. What was once a barren patch of ocean is now a thriving ecosystem!

Land to sea farms

Creating Blue-Green Jobs: From Newfoundland to Louisiana, boats are beached and fish plants idled. These communities need blue-green jobs. So we’ve started Project Green Wave to train and hire students to cook and process our products — many of whom are inner-city kids. They work with our farm and local chefs on new recipes, run a local fish market, all the while learning about ocean farming. We also run educational programs with the Yale Sustainable Food Project and other institutions.

Yale researchers heading to farm

We believe we’re on the brink of a Blue-Green Revolution. Imagine a network of small scale ocean farms like ours, growing food, fuel, fertilizer while reducing carbon emissions, restoring our ocean ecosystems, and building a bridge for our struggling fishing communities to lead the way into the new blue-green economy!