Seaweeds have been used in Ireland for decades for a variety of purposes; however the seaweed industry is still the Cinderella of the aquaculture and seafood Industry. Why is that?
There are diverse market application for seaweeds ranging from food, functional foods and health supplements to agricultural applications, cosmetics, biotechnology and aquaculture. Besides we have over 600 different species of seaweed identified from Irish waters.
Unfortunately seaweeds have never been taken seriously in Ireland compared to fish, mussels, scallops and Oyster and ample funding has gone into developing this resource. The recession of late has made things worse with BIM completely abandoning its seaweed program. Again it is the lack of vision or no vision at all! Countries such as Norway are setting up large scale programmes to develop their seaweed resources and seaweed aquaculture for integrated multi-trophic aquaculture. This is to improve the environmental record of fish farming and progress biofuel development while Norway is a country that has large oil resources.
If we look at seaweed at a global scale it is a different story. Worldwide seaweed aquaculture is a growing sector. Latest figures show a production of over 15 million tonnes wet weight with an economic value of US$ 6.5 billion. The majority of seaweed produced by aquaculture is used for human consumption and for extraction of hydrocolloids although the application for biofuels and other valuable ingredients is starting to play an important role. Moreover, new applications of algae and specific algal compounds in different sectors, such as functional foods, cosmetics, biomedicine and biotechnology are developed. Recent trends in life style towards natural, healthy products are favourable for advancement of seaweed consumption, applications and aquaculture.
Luckily the private sector in Ireland including Ocean Harvest Technology is rapidly developing the seaweed resources initiating new ideas and implementing their own R&D programs. It is through these initiatives that the future outlook looks good for our forgotten green gold on our shores. Especially the emerging markets such as functional foods and biofuel development from seaweeds will further enhance the sector. Bioethanol is currently produced from land-based crops such as corn and sugar cane, and the continued use of these crops will drive the food versus fuel debate more as demand for ethanol increases. Aquaculture of seaweeds is sustainable, use less or no agricultural inputs (pesticides, fertiliser, land, water), and not be part of the human or animal food chain. Cultivated seaweeds could be used as an alternative biomass source for bioethanol production and production of other high value added chemicals. Seaweed biomass represents an abundant and carbon neutral renewable resource with potential to reduce green-house gas emissions and the man-made impact on climate change. Coupled to fish farming it could even help alleviate environmental issues and recycle nitrates and phosphates.
The recently proposed deep water fish farm at the back of the Aran Islands producing 15,000 tonnes on top of the 13,000 currently produced nationally should incorporate aquaculture of seaweeds. This would allow for improving the environmental record, sustainability and carbon credits of the operation and could form part of the fish feed used for the fish creating the ultimate recycling of nutrients. Now that would be a long term vision!