This Fisherman Wants Us To Use The Oceans To Fight Climate Change

If we care about a livable planet, commercial fisherman-turned-kelp farmer Bren Smith says we need a Blue New Deal.
Bren Smith left commercial fishing to become a regenerative ocean farmer.
Bren Smith left commercial fishing to become a regenerative ocean farmer.
Matthew Novak

As a fisherman who has been working on the high seas since he was 14, Bren Smith has seen just how precarious life in and around the ocean can be.

He was 20 when the cod stocks in Newfoundland, Canada, collapsed in 1992, leaving more than 30,000 people without work and devastating the fishing village where he grew up. Smith was spared because he was working in Alaska at the time. Still, the experience shook him. He left commercial trawling behind and switched to oyster farming.

Then in 2011, “Hurricane Irene came,” Smith said. “And Hurricane Sandy the next year.” Intense storm surges, fueled by global warming, buried his bivalves and destroyed his equipment.

Discussions about climate change have often focused on its terrestrial impacts: the killer heatwaves, wildfire, desiccated forests and depleted farmland. But global warming is affecting the oceans as well, heating them up and changing their chemistry so rapidly that it’s diminishing seafood supplies and triggering stronger, wetter tropical storms, United Nations scientists recently warned.

“I was told climate change would be a slow lobster boil,” said Smith. “After the storms, I realized it was already here. It’s here and now.”

So Smith became one of a growing number of activists, policymakers and climate scientists working toward a plan that aims not only to protect the oceans but also to help slow the snowballing effects of global warming that threaten to wreck the planet. Along the way, they want to create more jobs in ocean conservation, offshore energy and seaside tourism. Modeled after the Green New Deal, these conservationists are calling their plan a “Blue New Deal” for the ocean.

“The thing is, we’re either looking at the ocean as a problem space,” Smith said, “or we see it as the victim — of acidification, of overfishing, of changing water temperatures, of bleached coral reefs.”

His version of a Blue New Deal reimagines the “ocean as a protagonist and as a place where we can build real climate solutions,” Smith said. The proposal, which Smith drafted along with marine biologist Ayana Johnson and Chad Nelsen of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, emphasizes restoring and replanting coastlines.

Wetlands, seagrasses and mangroves can absorb up to five times more carbon per acre than a rainforest, Johnson explained. “And wouldn’t that be a great opportunity for a jobs program?” she said. “We could have a conservation corps of young people that just go out and plant stuff.”

The plan also champions a model of ocean farming that Smith developed after losing all his oysters. The aquatic gardens he rebuilt off the coast of Connecticut include seaweed, which absorbs carbon, and shellfish, which absorb nitrogen. Besides absorbing greenhouse gases, he said his gardens are good for the climate because they help to restore the wider marine ecosystem. And they’re good business, he said, because they can float and bob through storms

Smith now runs the nonprofit GreenWave, which helps fishers across the country and around the world plan their own ocean gardens. He recounts his meandering journey from trawl fisherman to ocean entrepreneur in his 2019 book, “Eat Like a Fish.”

Smith harvests oysters from his Thimble Island Ocean Farm off Branford, Connecticut.
Smith harvests oysters from his Thimble Island Ocean Farm off Branford, Connecticut.
Ronald Gautreau Jr. for GreenWave

Ocean farms are “just one little idea,” Smith said. “My thought is: Let’s bundle together and support a thousand climate solutions because they’re out there.”

The Blue New Deal that Smith helped write is one of several similar efforts to articulate what such a proposal could include. Others have suggested investing in offshore wind farms and tidal energy, setting higher air quality standards for ships, and promoting hybrid and hydrogen-fueled vessels.

The activist group Blue Frontier has gone a step further to also propose flood insurance reform and programs to help people who live in flood-prone areas relocate to higher ground. More than 40% of Americans live along or near the coast, and coastal communities generate nearly half of the United States’ GDP ― about $8 trillion.

“When the best available science is giving us the worst possible scenarios for the ocean, we just have to do something,” said Blue Frontier’s founder, David Helvarg.

In a bid to gain the support of all presidential candidates for its Ocean Climate Action Plan, Blue Frontier invited scientists, fish and shellfish farmers, government officials and activists to a summit last week to refine the proposal. “We’ve got a lot of the tools and a lot of the solutions, but so far we’ve lacked the political will to do anything about it,” Helvarg said.

Part of the problem “is that oceans are sort of out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “Many Americans only think about the ocean when they’re on a beach vacation.”

That may be starting to change.

During CNN’s climate crisis town hall for Democratic presidential candidates last month, Smith had the opportunity to question one of the front-runners, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Those of us that work on the water, we need climate solutions and we need them now,” he told her. “The trouble is, is the Green New Deal only mentions our oceans one time. ... So what’s your plan for a Blue New Deal for those of us working on the oceans?”

Warren quickly promised her support. “I think he’s got it exactly right. We need a Blue New Deal as well,” she said.

Smith is waiting for her — and every other lawmaker — to get on it.

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