This story comes from "Lucky Peach #6: The Apocalypse Issue." For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

Things are not looking good in our oceans and seas, our bays and waterways, our rivers and streams. Not for the things that live in them and, increasingly, not for the people who live along them.

The International Programme on the Ocean, a group of oceanographers and other aquatically minded scientists, gathered at Oxford University in 2011 and published the findings of their symposium, which they summarized rather tidily: "The combination of stressors on the ocean is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth's history."

This scenario doesn't seem to dim Bren Smith's enthusiasm for raising imperiled sea creatures. Bren, who originally sent me the report, cheerily shouted to me, "we're in the middle of one of the largest extinctions in the ocean ever," as his oyster boat threaded its way through the Thimble Islands off the coast of Connecticut.

I visited him a few weeks after Isaac had muddied the waters he works on the upper side of the Long Island Sound—muddy waters suffocate oysters, not to mention his business—and it would be only a short number of weeks later than Sandy would come and deliver to him and his oysters another ruinous walloping. "I've been wiped out three times out of the last ten years—I mean completely wiped out," Bren says, "including last year, the entire crop…"

Bren's operation is notable because its model is newish: a "3-D sea farm," he calls it. He raises mussels and scallops near the top of the water, and clams and oysters along the Sound's floor. Kelp, which grows during the winter, connects the two. The acreage his operation covers is minimal compared to its output, at least when the New Weather isn't busy killing what
he raises.

I went out with him to slurp some oysters and talk about sea farming at the end of the world.


We were in the Thimble Islands, a little known East Coast archipelago of 23 or so islands, some small enough for just one dwelling, and a few large enough to hold a small host of houses.

All the homes are private. You know what's crazy? They've found some old model Ts on one of the islands; back when the winters were colder the water would freeze solid enough that you could commute to work over the ice. Now it's mostly summer places. Six of them are owned by this woman who's a magnate from a party store who got obsessed with collecting these islands and bought one for every one of her kids and grandkids. Rich people's business.

Some are rented—not quite timeshares, exactly. Some of the older families, sorta the Connecticut Yankees who are land rich and cash poor pay off their taxes by renting them out for a week. There's actually one sort of advertised hotel out there, where you can rent the whole building, but it's mainly a really tight-knit community. The kids just keep coming back; even the working class people here go back generations. It's that classic sorta island thing where people love it and won't leave and all hate each other.

There's a quarry on Bear Island where this famous pink granite comes from. The Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Congress—they are all made out of the pink granite from that island and a quarry nearby on the mainland. And—this is a little in dispute but I know it for sure—when Howard Rourke stands on the quarry's edge in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead that's on Bear Island over there.


grew up in Newfoundland in a little fishing village with nine houses. I dropped out of high school when I was fourteen and moved to Gloucester. Somebody told me I was a child laborer, but I was like, "All Newfies drop out of school." At fourteen, I even felt like I was like a little late to do so! Then I went to Alaska for about five years from when I was about sixteen. I went back and forth—I was on crab boats, cod boats, trawling, longlining, and so on. So the first half of my fishing career was like the worst form of food production. I was a complete raper and pillager up in Alaska. We didn't know better, or I didn't. I used to fish for McDonald's and they'd take all the sea lice–ridden, wormy fish—just the worst stuff.

I'm actually the worst oysterman ever, because I get seasick. Up in the Bering Sea, we'd be out for three months at a time. It's just brutal in the belly of the boat—I'd puke for the first two weeks, and after that I'd be fine. No one ever works through seasickness, you know? A lot of us used to get seasick the first two weeks.

I still work all the time. I haven't taken a vacation in six years, not even a weekend. And I love this every second of it, though I do eat terribly—I just don't have the time or money to do better. I'm an expert at putting together a gas station dinner. We don't cook; my wife is an artist. When we moved here we lived in an old Airstream trailer for seven years while we built our house so we didn't have heat, a bathroom, or any way to cook. We'd just eat out every night, didn't shop, and are still stuck in that rut.


got turned off by industrial fishing in part because the fish just started to disappear. I was starting to get some level of slow consciousness there, and I started to explore aquaculture. Of course, aquaculture was just starting to get industrialized as land culture was getting deindustrialized, so my first exposure to it was terrible. I worked at some salmon farms, and they were awful. Very awful. And I finally got interested in more of a self-directed life, like owning your own life, not so much owning my own company but owning my own experiments and failures. I decided I wanted to take my life and be sustainable. I was sick of working for people, mainly. That's when I stumbled onto the idea of oystering.

Of course, oyster grounds are hard to get. The shellfishing grounds in this area are mainly owned by five families. But in 20TK, the powers that be released grounds here for the first time in 150 years to attract people under forty back into fishery, so a bunch of us tried and got in. I'm the last one standing. Everyone else bought boats, went into debt, things like that. They were all fisherman, but this is not fishing, this is farming. Fishing is when you're chasing things, trying to hit the fish; it's like a lottery. But out here it's about touching every oyster and clam, every five weeks, keeping 'em free of anything unwanted, shaping them. (Bren rubs off the brittle front edge of the oyster shells as they are growing, giving it a deeper, more cupped shape.) It's really more like farming. 

I've got sixty acres, but I do most of my production in just twenty of it. Beautiful thing is that I have this really small footprint—it's vertical farming. On top, on the long lines, I grow kelp and Gracilaria, a red seaweed. Below them, mussels are hanging in socks and scallops in lantern cages, and below that is oysters and clams. This is the first multi-species vertical ocean farm in the country. I'm the first one ever to get permitted for surface gear on Long Island Sound—it took me two years and an incredible amount of money to get the permits. The reason is the aesthetics—a lot of these very wealthy people don't wanna see anything on the water even though they're foodies and environmentalists.

These species that I raise here filter out carbon, nitrogen, even heavy metals. (Thank God we don't have that problem here in the Thimble Islands, but it is a reason to grow oysters in other places—not for eating, but to help clean up polluted waterways.) Besides what the shellfish do on their own, their cages function as artificial reefs—everything is attracted to 'em; we've counted 150 difference species in these waters, way beyond what you'd normally expect to see these days.

We're getting a lot of creatures from down south. I just found a seahorse. No one's ever seen so many tropical fish around here. This year's been incredible. Four or five times already this summer, fishermen have been catching these crazy fish—tropical fish—that are coming because of the water-temperature changes.

The other reason no one's doing this 3D seafarming thing is that it's so experimental: I'll run it at a loss for quite a while because the kelp market already exists, it's mainly foreign, and there's a lot of local competition. We have to figure out how to Americanize it. I've got to get up to some economy of scale. Next year two more long lines will go in. I'll see how it goes as it grows. But I think you can only do local farming at my small scale and make a living by having some soft subsidy model where I'm growing food for local communities, doing a lot of education work, working with kids, nonprofits, legislators, and scientists.


There used to be oyster reefs so big here—like six feet high—so you'd actually have to navigate your boats around them. Oysters are a foundational species: they're the base of the ecosystem, which attracts everything, just like a coral reef. Take the Chesapeake Bay: the entire bay used to be filtered out once a week by the oysters. There were hundreds of millions of them! Oysters pull all the algae out of the water. When there's nothing to do that, you get huge algae blooms, which suck up all the oxygen and lead to higher nitrogen levels in the water. When the algae dies, it falls to the bottom and smothers what's down there, and you end up with these huge dead zones. Oysters were the natural buffer against that problem, but we killed them off so thoroughly that they can't come back on their own. Wild oysters are effectively gone.

Some scientists think oysters are going to be the first ocean species to be driven extinct by climate change—they're a very delicate crop, and thrive at very particular temperatures. The acidification of the oceans weakens their shells. Disease spreads as the water temperatures rise. And when a hurricane storm surges and loosens up all the silt and dirt that's in our waterways now, the oysters drown in mud. Irene was the biggest storm surge since 1938. It was a big deal, and three feet of mud came in, which was bad. But the real bad news was that it loosened up the bottom here, so now smaller storms are bringing in more mud and having an outsized impact.

Oysters are used to filtering 30 to 50 gallons of water a day. If they're coated in mud, they just die. A clam can squish up and move, same thing with scallops. Oysters are stuck wherever they are. That's why, with the BP spill in the Gulf, they do most of their testing on oysters—they can't flee, regardless of how they feel about the water conditions.

There's a debate in the scientific community. I don't want to stand here and tell you oysters are gonna go away. There are hopeful people that believe in adaptation. The question is just the speed. Oysters showed up something like 300 million years before dinosaurs. Before any fish. They've done well. The question is just how much and how fast they can change, and how they deal with the pressure we're putting on them. We're helping to extend their life through farming them but we're having incredible die-outs on the West Coast, where they're losing hundreds of millions of oysters. They think it's because of the acidification that comes with rising temperatures. 

So it's actually the twin evils of greenhouse gases: climate change and ocean acidification. They're very linked because the ocean soaks up a third of the carbon in the world and we've maxed it out as a carbon sink. It pulls out way more carbon than land-based plants like tropical forests. And all of that leads to water temperatures rising and a changed pH that affects the shells of crustaceans. They're finding all these other odd things, as well, like that fish are getting much smaller, not just because of overfishing but because of the changing temperatures. I just read this thing where they got forty of the top oceanographers in the world and they said we're in the middle of one of the largest extinctions in the ocean ever. Like, the top three or something, and we're not at the beginning of it: we're in the middle of it. This is happening. So the news is bad.

So you can stop overfishing, you can create huge marine parks, and everything's gonna die anyway. My argument is that it's not about conservation any more, it's about development: it's not how do we save the oceans, but how do the oceans save us? Let's move beyond depletion—even beyond restoration—to a place where we're actually improving the environment and fixing all these other social problems from jobs to climate change. This is where I always get in fights with conservationists and environmentalists. I think we need an industrial policy to create local food, create fuel, pull nitrogen and carbon out of the system, and to do it by creating good jobs on the water. I mean, I am a deeply self-interested party, who may be prone to exaggeration and lying, but I think kelp farming and this sort of integrated aquaculture we're doing here really could be an answer.

I mean, the kelp alone! My seaweed pulls five times the amount of carbon as a tree out of the water. Because kelp grows so fucking fast and it just doesn't take much area. My first mate Ron and I can create thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds of seaweed. And you could dot the coastline with these kinds of farms. With agriculture, what do we normally compete for? Land and fresh water. I don't use any of that.

I'm addicted to kelp. It's an ocean farmer's dream—fastest growing plant in the world, and it's a winter crop, which is invaluable for me. I'll plant next month, by March we'll have six to twelve feet—just stunning. It's our East Coast native sugar kelp and it can be used in cooking just like Japanese kombu. There are some slight differences, but not in terms of taste. It's got more protein than soybeans, more vitamin C than citrus fruits, more calcium than milk. There are all these other uses, too. I'm working with a biofuel company here in Connecticut. You take a one-acre area and you get 2,000 gallons of ethanol per year.

The process for turning kelp into fuel is much faster than land-based fuel—two or three times as fast to process it. They basically just liquefy it. We could use the high-quality stuff grown in clean water for food, and I could grow kelp in very polluted areas like Bridgeport Harbor, which is chock full of heavy metals,, and use it for fertilizer, for fish food, and plenty of other things, too.

And we can scale up. I can't even believe them, but the numbers coming out of the scientific literature—you take 3 percent of the oceans and dedicate them to seaweed and you can actually feed the world. If you take an area half the size of Maine you can replace all the oil in the United States.

There's a counterargument to what I'm talking about that says this is about financializing or exploiting the environment in the name of saving it. There's some truth to that, but I think we're past the point where we can pretend like sitting around and not touching anything will save us. Things are too far gone. I'm not some industrialist—I am deeply, deeply of this new generation of green fishermen, protecting the environment, both for life and livelihood. God, I sound mad, don't I? "Forty acres and a mule! Life and livelihood!"

But this isn't about altruism. It's actually about feeding and paying people—making this truly sustainable. Food activists have to start thinking about this— how to make a living, how to have pensions, how to move subsidies off the industrial and over to the small farms and make it a real job. Not just poor farmers or workers, but actually a working class of equal dignified professionals. 

If you're actually modeling this out and can get a lot of people to do it, it will create jobs and food, and it will be good for the water. It drives me nuts when I hear about people who want to go back to agrarian culture: they haven't thought it through. We can't walk away from this coast and come back in twenty years and expect it to be covered in oysters. That's not going to happen.

Regardless of what happens, it's a wonderful time to be alive. History's moving so fast and we're doomed and I'm Irish and the great thing about life is that it's short. This is how I want my hours spent, out here, doing this as long as I can. It's hard work. It's not profitable and it destroys your body. I crawl out of bed like a crab every morning— my back's gone, my shoulders are going, and most times my hands are so rough my wife makes me have sex like a lobster. As an oysterman, how do I address climate change? I can't go to Kentucky to stop coal plants. I can grow kelp and do it this way.

I hope we can turn the tide back a bit, and create more jobs and better food along our coasts, but hope isn't my thing. Work is. And I'll keep working these waters until the storms and the banks shut me down. What I usually say is this: just as I remade myself a green fisherman, I'm going to be part of the first generation of green fishermen put out of work.

But I think the answer with oysters and shellfish is an adaptation strategy. Can we work hard now so another generation of fishermen, with new techniques and technologies, can earn a living out here? Long term, it doesn't look good. But you never know.

This story comes from "Lucky Peach #6: The Apocalypse Issue." For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!