SHORELINE — Bren Smith is spreading the good word about kelp — its rich nutrition value, positive impact on the waters it grows in and unique taste.
His newly released book, “Eat Like A Fish, My Adventures as a Fisherman turned Restorative Ocean Farm,” is part memoir, part manifesto. Smith delves into his life story and interweaves his discovery of kelp and its vast richness in so many ways.
After moving to the Shoreline, he discovered oysters, which in turn led to kelp farming. “This is true oysters, but seaweeds taste different in every place, the same species. The sugar kelp grown here, versus Maine, versus Alaska, has different mouth-feel, different taste and flavor profile,” Smith said. “In Southern New England, we’ve got a much more delicate plant. It’s thinner and it’s milder.”
Here in Connecticut, Smith said kelp seeds are planted in November and harvested in mid-March. Locally, kelp can be purchased at Stonington Kelp Co. in season. Otherwise, it can be ordered online at California’s Blue Evolution and Atlantic Sea Farms in Maine.
Smith said his favorite dish is barbequed kelp noodles and parsnips and breadcrumbs.
“What makes that so good is that you get the heat of the barbeque sauce, you get that round flavor of the parsnips and the crunch of the breadcrumbs and those just go really well with sea greens,” he said.
When he arrived in Guilford, it was a pivotal moment in his life.
“Who would have guessed it?” he said. “The Shoreline saved me. It really did.
“When I came down here, I saw it as the suburbs and then I found the Shoreline. It’s interesting, because in Connecticut, in a way we forget — especially as a job creator and a place for opportunity — we forget our Shoreline. It’s a great recreational space, but there’s a lot more than can be done with it.”
In early 2000, he began oystering off the Thimble Islands in Stony Creek.
“Slowly, but steadily, I developed a blue-green thumb,” he wrote of his journey as Thimble Island Ocean Farm. “My seed grew quickly, beautifully infused with the merrior of the Thimble Islands. They had deep, golden shells, and the meat was plump. … My first check was from Bud’s Fish Market, located a few miles down the road.”
After farming off Stony Creek for 15 years, he found a way to tap into the kelp market.
“There’s this whole lost tradition in the U.S. of eating seaweed,” Smith said. “There were 1,500 workers in San Diego, on the ports, producing 55 different products in the early 1900s. They were making food, they were making fertilizer, animal feed. It was huge, huge industry in the 1900s. This is about trying to revive that.”
Now, this former commercial fisherman is dedicated to teaching others the richness of what the water can offer through his nonprofit organization, GreenWave.
“That’s what’s exciting, is that in this era, climate change, our changing economy and our ecosystem, there is this opportunity to look at this whole other great resource we have and rethink it and think about how we can build something from the ground up that’s regenerative, that’s sustainable,” he said.
He no longer sells kelp; his farm has become a floating classroom. In addition, the organization has expanded to seven other states, including Alaska, California, New York and Iceland.
“We just stepped back at GreenWave and looked at who’s in the industry as a whole and it’s a majority of women is what we’re seeing and it’s stunning,” Smith said.
Smith talks about all the jobs in the industry, including GreenWave’s internship in a hatchery and then policy jobs and entrepreneurial startups that are creating kelp bouillon cubes, salsa and fertilizer.
“The role of the farm is to bring people from all around the country and the world and train them how to be ocean farmers,” he said. “We have a pretty intensive farmer-training program and we’ve got a waiting list of 4,000 farmers. It’s just stunning how many people want to start farms and we’re only able to train eight people a year.”
In the book, Smith is honest and up front about his modest and often troubled upbringing, drinking to excess, indulging in drugs and spending some time behind bars as well as in bars.
“I miss the days of being a commercial fisherman, sort of living on the knife’s edge,” he said. “We all have our troubles, we all live through dark times, we’ve all done things we’re not proud of, that’s the spice of life, I think. Part of me is still looking for that rogue wave out on Long Island Sound. Being a fisherman in the high seas is one of the most thrilling, wonderful jobs out there. Last commercial hunters on earth, sort of.”
Smith was a commercial fisherman and tried his hand at politics. While academics was never his strong suit, he struggled through the University of Vermont and Cornell Law School, where he graduated with a law degree, but never took the bar exam.
“I think I get pretty impatient with life,” he said. “My dad was very much like that. I always think of it as the more I’m on land, the more frustrated I get and the more of a terrible person I become. So, the journey’s always been thriving on the water and then getting landlocked and struggling and getting lost and trying to find my way and then returning to the water again.”
Smith has never shied away from hard work.
“I think there are two types of redemption, as I look back on my life,” he said. “One is the ecological redemption from the industrial fishery, to here in Stony Creek, but also the redemptive power of work.
“I think it’s something that we’ve lost in this country of ours, because the songs are all written about farmers, fishermen, steel workers, coal miners. These are soul-filling jobs and they’re really about both toil and really a strong cultural identity of pride of feeding, building and powering the country.
“Now, so much of the economy is really a cubicle economy. People forget how powerful and wonderful and beautiful life is where you get to use your body and work and create concrete things — like grow food that you can see and you can eat.”
In 2014, he married to Tamanna Rahmn, a nurse and “consummate foodie,” according to Smith. “She read cookbooks in bed at night and could draw you a map of taco trucks in L.A.,” he wrote.
They settled in Fair Haven, in the former home of John B. Luddington, the inventor of deepwater oyster cultivation, according to lore. The home overlooks the oyster boats working on the Quinnipiac River.
For a fisherman who has fond memories of savoring the fish filet sandwich from McDonalds, who spent time living in a tent and an Airstream trailer, this was a big change.
“I finally felt rooted for the first time since I left the banks of Newfoundland,” he wrote.
Now, at 47 years old, he is looking forward to fatherhood. Smith said, like many Northern fisherman, he doesn’t know how to swim. Asked if his daughter will learn to swim, he doesn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.
“She has to have that feeling of like the world and the land is disappearing and that feeling of freedom you have in the water and that independence,” Smith said. “I want her to be a worker. I want her to know how to fix engines and drive boats and I’m excited for her to be a captain someday.”
As for Smith’s future, it will always be on the water.
“I dare the sea to take me,” he wrote. “I hope someday it does.”