Researchers from the UN University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health, and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), have recently felt the need to issue warnings about the future of seaweed farming, based on lessons learnt from negative practices associated with other types of agriculture. This includes preventing the introduction of non-indigenous pests and disease (something that happened between 2011 and 2013 in the Philippines), and establishing cooperative planning in order to anticipate and resolve conflicts between competing interests jostling over finite coastal marine resources.
The past few decades have been extremely good for the seaweed industry, as the rapid expansion of aquaculture cultivation has seen exponential growth in seaweed production. From worldwide sales of just 3.8 million tonnes in 1990, it had escalated to over 25 million tonnes by 2014, with the whole industry worth an estimated $6.4billion. Over half of this production (12.8 million tonnes) comes from China, with Indonesia contributing roughly a quarter, and significant contributions coming from places such as South Korea and the Philippines (with small but growing industries in northern Europe, East Africa, and Canada). Primary usage for seaweed remains human consumption, including indirectly as a fertiliser or in animal feed. However, it has also experienced a boom in various pharmaceuticals and antimicrobial products, to the extent that seaweed can nowadays be found in such products as toothpaste, cosmetics, and paint.
“The seaweed industry must be developed in a sustainable way that maintains the highest biosecurity standards to prevent the introduction of pests and disease”
‘Rapidly increasing seaweed cultivation globally will be good for commerce and open up a range of new products, but we must also try to minimise any negative effects that this industry may have on coastal marine environments,’ emphasises Dr Elizabeth Cottier-Cook, the head of SAMS. ‘The seaweed industry must be developed in a sustainable way that considers not just how to maximise profits, but also maintains the highest biosecurity standards to prevent the introduction of pests and disease. It will also be crucial to develop new indigenous disease-resistant strains of seaweed, wherever possible.’
Booming seaweed production is being heralded by environmentalists, thanks to its relatively sustainable production, due to a non-reliance on external feed or fertilisers, making it an extremely benign form of agriculture. Additionally, small-scale aquaculture has taken off in several places where destructive fishing practices, such as dynamite fishing, have decimated local fishing industries. Switching attention to seaweed has enabled many people, particularly women, to create livelihoods where few options previously existed. It has also eased pressure on overfished regions of the ocean, such as those off Tanzania.
This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.