Life in Salt: A Talk with Bren Smith, Owner of Thimble Island Oysters and Long Island Sound’s First Vertical 3D Ocean Farm

by Owen James Burke

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“I can’t swim. A lot of fishermen where I’m from never learn. The water’s cold and we have a saying that it just prolongs your death. People can’t believe it, but, if you go down in the Grand Banks, just calm down and say goodbye.”

Bren Smith is a fisherman who dropped out of high school at the ripe old age of fourteen to pursue a fishing career. Since, he’s fished the Grand Banks out of Gloucester, Massachusetts and Newfoundland and the Bering Strait out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Most recently he’s found his way to Long Island Sound where he’s now raising some of the best ‘boutique’ oysters on Long Island Sound and operating the Sound’s first vertical 3D ocean farm.

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Scut: So Bren, where are you from?

BS: Well my parents were draft-dodgers, so I grew up up in Newfoundland. A tiny town called Petty Harbor, which is the eastern-most point in America, and just a little fishing village. So I grew up there and I go over the years just back and forth but now I’m half in New Haven and half in Brooklyn.

Scut: Ah ok.

BS: Just because everybody who eats my weird stuff is here in New York.

Scut: Right, right. That’s the clientele to have.

BS: Yea, yea, for now at least.

Scut: Do you know Bun Lai (of Miya Sushi) by any chance?

BS: Yea, I know Bun, he specializes in the invasive species stuff. That’s his beat, which is good. The funny thing about the invasive species, it has been really interesting to track because it’s an evolving thing where they are looking more like climate refugees. I grew up in Newfoundland with the seal kills. I dropped out of high school when I was 14 and started fishing. Now the seals are showing up in mass and I joke around that I’m going to start the invasive species seal clubbing at night. Nobody’s buying tickets for some reason.

Scut: So you dropped out of school and never went back?

BS: Actually, my high school records were fudged. So, I ended up in college and I just fished back and forth since I’ve been 14. I fished the Grand Banks, I was down in Gloucester, I was in Dutch on the Bering Sea for quite a while, then tried to do some aquaculture after the cod stocks crashed back in Newfoundland…I hadn’t taken a science class, ever. Then I found my way to Long Island Sound. I was fishing for McDonalds out on the Bering Sea. That split that we had — sort of a generational split — those of us that were thinking 30-50 years out because we were young enough. We started aquaculture, and aquaculture was terrible. I wouldn’t call that fish or food that we were growing at that point. Eventually, I ended up in Long Island Sound as the oysterman.

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Scut: You’ve certainly made the rounds. I started out as a fishermen too working on charter boats and then I went off to college, mistakenly, and never got back around to fishing!

BS: Now you’re the storyteller — the translator — for the rest of us. That’s good. If you ever come back my way, we’ll get you on the farm, for sure. We’re harvesting salt now. We just got a plot on top of the flatiron building, of all things, to start doing artisanal salt.

Scut: What’s the most terrifying thing that’s happened to you at sea?

BS: Right after Irene, when I got totally wiped out by the storms. You know, Long Island Sound is still ridiculously calm. I’m still built for the rogue waves so my guys still make fun of me. I’m always looking over my shoulder. A rogue wave for Long Island Sound is probably a foot-and-a-half. I can’t swim. A lot of fishermen where I’m from never learn. The water’s cold and we have a saying that it just prolongs your death. People can’t believe it, but, if you go down in the Grand Banks, just calm down and say goodbye.

I went out right after the storm at the tail end to see what I could save. I shouldn’t have gone out. I had a really old boat at that point. I was trying to lift a cage but my cages were over a thousand pounds at that point (because of the mud). My hauler broke, snapped. My engine died, and we were getting blown into the rocks really fast and hard. It was rough seas and that was just me being really stupid. We got pulled off the rocks by the coast guard.

BS: The worst moment at sea — well there were two — was when  — I never thought of the most dangerous moment at sea. You’d think I would…I got hit with a really nasty rogue wave outside of Gloucester. We would fish 364 days a year and we were just a 32-footer out there really far out in the winter, open end lobster boat. We got hit with a fucking huge wave, just swamped and I almost got pulled overboard because of that. When you’re that young, your frontal lobe isn’t developed and you don’t have good risk assessment.

Scut: I can remember a few of those myself.

BS: The two worst moments at sea, I’d say: one was when I first started lobstering. It was 90-degree weather, the mackerel was completely rotted, full of maggots. I was stuffing bait and I started to get seasick on the boat the first couple of days. But, I was driving an hour home at night and getting up at 2 in the morning. I’d be throwing up on land. I’d pull my truck over, puke. I’d be on the boat, I’d puke. So I was in this purgatory.

The second time, I was on the Bering Sea working in the belly of the boat, which I’d never done. That was really fucking with me because I was working 30-hour shifts and that roll, and not being able to sea the ocean, not having fresh air, and the smell the diesel. I started to get nauseous, and there was this great moment when I went into the bathroom.

Scut: Every good story starts there.

BS: I was hallucinating because I was so low on sleep and the walls were dripping and sound was coming through in waves and I sat down on the toilet. I fell asleep. I stood up and I’d shit on the toilet seat. I sat back down in it, went to sleep again, and then woke up and, pulled up my pants and went back to fishing. I’d say that was a low point.

Scut: Oh god. Fishing’s tough business.

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BS: It’s funny, farming now. It’s boring business. It’s like farming arugula. I had to lose that sense of adventure. I always know what the hell’s gonna come up in my cages. It’s a completely different mindset. I had to lose the thrill of the adrenaline and get much more into a quiet, contemplative life. That was a real shift in terms of identity.

Scut: Oh no. I bet you’ve started doing yoga and drinking kelp smoothies and wearing Birkenstocks.

BS: Herbal teas, exactly. I had to go shopping.

Scut: What’s your favorite ocean story?

BS: Funny enough, all my fish was going to McDonalds. There are a couple, and they’re all around food. I left the Bering Sea — and I’m not a foodie, I eat at the gas station most nights, but I still have this incredible yearning for the life of fishing, the sense of adventure, the humility, all the feelings you get. Your camaraderies and friendships, and things like that. And, I was making an incredible living, as opposed to now. SO, there’s a real nostalgia.

Every time I’d visit my grandma — four or five times a year — our ritual was to go out to McDonalds, order a Fishwich sandwich, sit down, open it and we’d both take a bite. She’d say, “Who knows, maybe it’s one of yours?” In there, is just packed with nostalgia and missing of a home. I have a culture I grew up in that’s just been decimated by where we are now. I don’t think people really realize that.

The other one is, on the cod boats, the Japanese were taking the highest quality black cod. The Japanese inspector was this great guy, and in some ways it was my first experience with a foodie. We’d sit around — he couldn’t speak much English, I was so young and we bonded, but we’d sit around and eat bait. He’d eat frozen bait raw all the time, and he taught me how to cook it up. He’d just eat everything that came out of the water and sort of snack and taste. And he’d bring me stuff, and that was my first experimental period with food. I have fond memories of that.

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Scut: What is it that gratifies you most about what you do?

BS: I think this whole experimental journey I’ve been on has seen a lot of failure. But, the model of 3D restorative farming, I have real hope for it that it can actually be replicated, and we are replicating it all over the country and the world at this point by taking that model and really helping struggling fishing communities. I’ve got something like 80-90% unemployment in my town. Bringing jobs back there, an economy back to places that are struggling, but keeping that core sense of identity that fishermen have, which is: you own your own boat, you have a self-directed life, you succeed and fail on your own terms, no boss, you’re out on the water, there are just these things that can’t be replaced, and they can’t be replaced. There’s a famous fishing story in Newfoundland. A fisherman gets a huge check from the government as a buyout of his license, buys a beautiful new truck, drives himself down to the dock every morning at four in the morning and drinks himself to death while he’s wishing he was out on the water. It’s iconic; you can see that happen when you’re down on the docks.

…People just don’t understand the depth of the culture and why we do what we do. I really do think because it retains those existential pieces, and it has the possibility — ‘cause you can just grow so much seaweed and so many species in small areas — that it’s really replicable and scalable to really reduce pressures on fish stocks and to carve out a new section of the dinner plate, and to create things like sustainable biofuels and fertilizers. It’s very much a reimagining of our oceans but robust enough to create an economy. That’s the journey we’re on now, and that I’m really excited about and grateful that I stumbled upon that after my farm was destroyed.

Scut: How has the sea changed you since you were young?

BS: I started in it. Literally going through seal carcasses on the beach. It hasn’t changed me but retained and stabilized me. It’s given me this core center that I’ve held onto so that no matter where I’ve ended up, the sea’s given me the identity and always corrected my course. I sold woodworking on the streets of New York for about a decade while I was farming. I did pretty well there, but it wasn’t want moved me. The ocean has been the ballast of my life.

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Scut: Can you talk a little about what you’re farming? What’s the most difficult crop or species to manage?

BS: Different species are harder. We’re doing oysters, scallops, mussels, clams and kelp, and there are four or five species we’re going to experiment with over the long term. Oysters are very tough, fickle creatures to grow. They just require so much water — 30-50 gallons of water a day. They can choke and die on silt and mud as it comes in through storm surges or even just small gales. There are so many critters that eat them; starfish are just the scourge. Rising water temperatures is a huge problem; I think we were shut down for 6 weeks during oyster season last year, and we’re shut down right now because of torrential rain. Oysters are really labor-intensive, which is good. It’s not a bad thing, but mussels and scallops for example, are much, much easier to grow. All of these, as we say, are zero-input. The scallops, the mussels, and especially the kelp, just sit there.

My job, especially with the kelp, as a farmer, is to get the nutrient and the right light penetration right. It’s sitting pretty much three feet below the water line throughout the year. Kelp grows incredibly heavy. On a 50-foot line, I’ll get 1500 pounds of kelp. It’s just stunning. I only have to check my lines, I’d say, twice a month.

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Scut: How often do you check the oysters?

BS: Because I do a really high-end boutique oyster, I’m trying to touch every oyster once every five weeks. I’m out there all the time with the oysters. I’ve got to thicken the shells, I shape the shells by tumbling or by hand, and because there are so many things that eat oysters, I keep them in bags and I’ve always got to be scrubbing the bags.

Scut: I’m looking forward to seeing that. I’ve grown up around the oyster industry my whole life, but I’ve never seen it up close. How much of the year are you operating?

BS: I’m year-round. The whole idea is diversify crops, which lowers risk. Some of the species like the scallops and the kelp is post-hurricane season, so I’m year-round. This year, I was spending so much time just breaking ice with sledgehammers and pushing little icebergs off my grounds so they wouldn’t rip my gear apart. It was a crazy winter.

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Scut: What kind of boats are you running?

BS: This whole system is a really simple infrastructure. I’m just running a 26-foot Privateer with a 150-horse on it. Which are great, because they’ve got a really wide beam, they’ve got a half-inch hull, and they’re called mini icebreakers. Then I’ve got two skiffs — plywood skiffs made by the Kelsey Brothers down the road — that I use for my upriver grounds and that I use out there just to work my gear when I need to be close to the water and I don’t want the weight of a big Privateer pulling my lines. I’m just running two or three boats, and they’re all small.

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Scut: Do you have a piece of gear or a tool you like to rely on and would recommend?

BS: I go for simplicity and elegance on all things, and keep on stripping down. Instead of using a hauler, instead of a Briggs and Stratton, I just use a sailboat capstan that has two gears on it and I can lift 6,000 pounds with that thing and I oil it once a year. It’s so, so simple. It works perfectly for ocean farming.

BS: For the layperson, the best knife on the water is the red-handled twine knife. You know what is awesome, actually — I created this for the skiffs, which often don’t have scuppers. I just made this bilge pump running off a 12-volt battery that’s solar-powered. Anyone can do it. You’ve got a battery with a battery box, a charge controller underneath the lid and then a small 3-amp little panel sitting that’s the size of the battery hooked up to the bilge pump. I’ve never had to pump my boat. It’s completely self-sufficient and works perfectly. It’s so easy to make and it solves one of the biggest problems.

My refrigerator and freezer are also solar-powered. It helped medicines in Afghanistan and the technology spun off and the Germans make this incredible one (a company called Steca). I can keep ice and oysters frozen or just refrigerator-chilled around the clock.

Scut: Do you have a favorite ocean book?

Cod: A Biography of Fish that Changed the World was just a brilliant, brilliant book. It was one of the first books about a history of a natural resource in that way. It has recipes…it begins in my town. There’s that, and then Joshua Slocum’s book, Sailing Alone Around the World. That’s just one of my all-time favorites.

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Scut: So, what’s on the horizon for Thimble Island Oysters?

BS: I do a lot of floating classrooms out there [on Long Island Sound]. What’s interesting is that the farm itself has been the best messenger, you know, story of hope, to talk about environmental stuff.

Scut: Without having to be environmental, too.

BS: Exactly. And so it’s about the whole package. And there’s a challenge, but this is a challenge that people around the globe are responding to and my farm is just one little piece of the puzzle. Then there’s the fact that it’s built around food.  People love the oceans, they love food, and the messenger is community-based and so positive. Having the food and the oceans tell the story, it’s the right messenger in order to get people — I think — to start acting and searching for their own solutions.

BS: Kelp is going to be served in the White House in June, and it’s going to be the first time in history that native-farmed kelp is going to be served in the White House. The challenge I have is to make this a really scalable, workable model and to create this kind of, what I call “climate cuisine” — to make really beautiful, delicious food out of these things that can be grown and are restorative. The challenge is ‘de-sushifying it.’ We’ve got to make it kind of the “Captain Gordon’s Fish Stick,” or I say, “kelp is the new kale.” It’s as wonderful as eating fish. It’s a hard lift, but if our chefs are any good, this is their chance to do it…The way to do that is not to bring the dark news to everybody, but let’s create amazing sea greens…

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Scut: It’s all in the presentation always say a good chef can make cardboard taste good.

BS: Exactly.

Scut: But kelp is delicious right out of the ocean, it really doesn’t need much work.

BS: Exactly. We’re working on fettuccine noodles right now which are really going well. We did a lot of taste-tests in New York. We did all the weird stuff — kelp cocktails and kelp butter and everything in order to flip that frame so people stop thinking about sushi right off the bat. Now, with the noodles — because when you blanche kelp for 15 seconds, you get a really neutral flavor with a little bit of sweetness and a little bit of saltiness, and so it noodles really well, and it sauces really well. It just does not really taste like what people think of in terms of seaweed.

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Scut: I have to ask about this cocktail, one last thing. Can you tell me about it?

BS: Yeah, yeah. I teamed up with a mixologist here in New York and we created all these kelp-infused cocktails. We did it with different vodkas, whiskeys, carrot-mango cocktails with kelp in them. Kelp is funny, it can either be the dominant taste, or not. You know, it’s an Umami.

I did one with Suntory, the oldest distillery in Japan. They were there and we used their whiskey and infused it with kelp. They were highly suspicious to say the least, but they loved it. It’s amazing they’ve never done it. It made the whiskey taste more whiskey and it brought out the complexity, and that was a surprise to me, but also to them, and that’s just the straight powers of Umami.

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But, kelp butter is delicious. Again, you get the Umami, but you get the salts in their and for some reason it really sits nicely with the fatty taste. That’s been a huge hit, and I serve that on the boat all the time. I just did the “Billion Oyster Ball” in New York Harbor and I was helping them raise money and serving my oysters.

We had the salt that we do, and we did a salt and sea lettuce infusion and put that on cucumbers. People love that. And we do a kelp butter on pieces of bread, and it was a huge hit. Again, we’re just trying to expand the dinner plate in that way, and just nibbling around the edges. I think there are huge possibilities.

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 Kelp-infused sea salt (right)

Scut: Well I love what you’re doing and I can’t wait to see it.

BS: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Make sure to get in touch and we’ll make a day of it. We’ll try to get you a little drunk on the boat.

Scut: So long as it’s with the kelp, I absolutely will.

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Above: Bren’s TEDx Talk in Bermuda, “3D Ocean Farming — The Least Deadliest Catch” 

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All media courtesy of Bren Smith

Follow Bren Smith and Thimble Island Oyster Co.:

Twitter: @ThimbleOysters

Facebook: Thimble Island Oyster Co

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