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Are Underwater Gardens The Key To Feeding The World And Combatting Climate Change?

Thinking in 3D could be the key to better fishing, according to one former oyster farmer from Canada. Bren Smith realized climate change was affecting our ability to make use of the seas, so he came up with a way to help the environment while improving output, too. His so-called underwater farming technique takes up less space than a regular farm and is impressively productive. It's also invisible from the shore, meaning your romantic walks on the beach will continue to only have sunset views.

Bren Smith harvesting kelp.

A Drop in the Ocean

In 2011, Hurricane Irene ravaged the East Coast. A year later, Hurricane Sandy did even more damage. Both storms buried Smith's oyster crops in mud and destroyed a sizable portion of his equipment. "After my farm was destroyed, it was clear to me that I had to adapt because I was facing a serious threat to my livelihood," wrote the former oysterman, now executive director at GreenWave. He was seeing the realities of overfishing and climate change, and he had to think deep—as in, way under the ocean's surface.

Today, he describes his 40-acre farm as "a vertical underwater garden with hurricane-proof anchors on the edges connected by floating horizontal ropes across the surface." Kelp and other seaweeds grow vertically, salt is there to be harvested, mussels flourish, and underneath the garden you'll find cages filled with oysters. Clams are buried below that. A very diverse offering, to be sure, but because it's vertical, the farm takes up very little ocean space.

Smith told a Yale publication that each of the 20 acres produces up to 30 tons of kelp and around 250,000 oysters, mussels, and scallops each year. Over time, he aims to expose people to a larger proportion of the thousands of edible plants in the ocean, including working with chefs to "de-sushify seaweed" and come up with novel, tasty dishes that incorporate his ocean plants. "By eating the plants fish eat, we get the same benefits while reducing pressure on fish stocks," Smith wrote. "So it's time that we eat like fish."

Small Space, Big Impact

There are three main goals of the project: to grow food, to teach fishermen how to become so-called ocean farmers and work in a more sustainable manner, and to disrupt the economy. The economy is rightly a large concern of many, and Smith believes ocean agriculture is just what it needs. He open-sourced his model, which allows people to start a 3D vertical farm for a $30,000 investment. His group then helps farmers get started by purchasing their first crops at a high price. "We replicate and scale by specifically designing our farms to require low capital costs and minimal skills," Smith said. This should allow almost anyone to get on board.

The underwater farm even helps other farmers on land: the kelp captures nitrogen that's escaped into the water so it can be turned into fertilizers for the next growing season. "My job has never been to save the seas; it's to figure out how the seas can save us," Smith wrote.

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Written by Haley Otman May 11, 2017

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