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The Seas Will Save Us: How an Army of Ocean Farmers are Starting an Economic Revolution

I’m a fisherman who dropped out of high school in 1986 at the age of 14. Over my lifetime, I’ve spent many nights in jail. I’m an epileptic. I’m asthmatic. I don’t even know how to swim. This is my story. It’s a story of ecological redemption.

I was born and raised in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, a little fishing village with 14 salt-box houses painted in greens, blues, and reds so that fishermen could find their way home in the fog. At age 14 I left school and headed out to sea. I fished the Georges Banks and the Grand Banks for tuna and lobster, then headed to the Bering Sea, where I fished cod and crab. The trouble was I was working at the height of the industrialization of food. We were tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, chasing fish further and further out to sea into illegal waters. I personally have thrown tens of thousands of pounds of by-catch back into the sea.

It wasn’t just that we were pillaging. Most of my fish was going to McDonald’s for their fish sandwiches. There I was, still a kid, working one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet, producing some of the most unhealthy food on the planet. But God how I loved that job! The humility of being in 40-foot seas, the sense of solidarity that comes with being in the belly of a boat with 13 other people working 30-hour shifts, and a sense of meaning and pride in helping to feed my country. I miss those days so, so much.

But then in the early 1990s the cod stocks crashed back home: thousands of fishermen thrown out of work, boats beached, canneries shuttered. This situation created a split in the industry: the captains of industry, who wanted to fish the last fish, were thinking 10 years down the road, but there was a younger generation of us thinking 50 years out. We wanted to make our living on the ocean. I want to die on my boat one day — that’s my measure of success.

So we all went on a search for sustainability. I ended up in Northern Canada on an aquaculture farm. At that point aquaculture was supposed to be the great solution to overfishing, but when I got there I found more of the same, only using new technologies to pollute local waterways with pesticides and pumping fish full of antibiotics. We used to say that what we were growing was neither fish nor food. We were running the equivalent of Iowa pig farms at sea.

So I kept searching and ended up on Long Island Sound, where there was a program to attract young fishermen back into the industry by opening up shell-fishing grounds for the first time in 150 years. I signed up, leased some grounds from the state of New York, and re-made myself as an oysterman. I did this for seven years. Then the storms hit. Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy thrashed the East Coast. Two years in a row the storms buried 90 percent of my crops in three feet of mud, and 40 percent of my gear was washed away in a sea of death. At the same time, lobster were being driven northward by warming waters, and acidification was increasing faster than at any other time in 300 million years, killing billions of oyster seed up and down the American coast.

Suddenly I found myself on the front lines of a climate crisis that had arrived 100 years earlier than expected. For a long time I’d seen climate change only as an environmental issue because environmentalists were always framing it in terms of birds, bears, and bees, but I’m a fisherman. I kill things for a living. I grew up shooting moose out of my kitchen window. I never thought climate change had anything to do with my life. But it does. From my vantage point, climate change is not an environmental issue at all — it’s an economic issue.

The same years my farm was wiped out by hurricanes, 83,000 people lost their jobs in New York City because of flooding, many of those in manufacturing. Unemployment claims doubled in Vermont along the storm’s path, and 80 percent of U.S. farmland was shriveled by drought, driving up food prices for middle and working class families. It turns out there will be no jobs on a dead planet.

Vertical underwater farming

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. I began to re-imagine my occupation and oyster farm. I began experimenting and exploring new designs and new species. I lifted my farm off the sea bottom to avoid the impact of storm surges created by hurricanes and started to grow new mixes of restorative species. Now, after 29 years of working on the oceans, I’ve remade myself as a 3D ocean farmer, growing a mix of seaweeds and shellfish for food, fuel, fertilizer, and feed.

That’s how I got to where I am today. Now let’s dive in and take a look at the farm and deconstruct why it’s designed the way it is. Imagine a vertical underwater garden with hurricane-proof anchors on the edges connected by floating horizontal ropes across the surface. From these lines kelp and Gracilaria and other kinds of seaweeds grow vertically downward next to scallops in hanging nets that look like Japanese lanterns and mussels held in suspension in mesh socks. Staked below the vertical garden are oysters in cages and then clams buried in the sea floor.

If you look for my farm from ashore, there’s almost nothing to see, which is a good thing. Our underwater farms have a low aesthetic impact. That’s important because our oceans are beautiful pristine places, and we want to keep them that way. Because the farm is vertical, it has a small footprint. My farm used to be 100 acres; now it’s down to 20 acres, but it produces much more food than before. If you want “small is beautiful,” here it is. We want ocean agriculture to tread lightly.

Our 3D farms are designed to address three major challenges: First, to bring to the table a delicious new seafood plate in this era of overfishing and food insecurity; second, to transform fishermen into restorative ocean farmers; and third, to build the foundation for a new blue-green economy that doesn’t recreate the injustices of the old industrial economy.

Pre-order Ronnie's New Book, Coming February 11

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