Tide must turn to use potential of seaweed

An estimated 100,000 ton of seaweed washes up daily on the Irish coastline, but only a fraction of this resource is currently being exploited for its potential as a foodstuff, and the raw material for medical, cosmetic and other uses. Countries such as Norway, France and Spain are decades ahead of us when it comes to the commercial harvesting of seaweed, and IFA aquaculture secretary Richie Flynn believes exploiting our seaweed resources needs to be part of any government vision for the overall seafood industry. “There is huge potential for public-private investment on the seaweed side,” says Mr Flynn.

Seaweed in the West of IrelandApart from the food industry, the research proves there’s a multitude of potential uses for seaweed in the medical and synthetics industries. It’s a really exciting area for new development, if only the relevant government authorities would allow our SMEs [small and medium enterprises] to fully research and develop the scope of the product that is out there.

According to Mr Flynn:

This is a sustainable and renewable resource, and 100,000 ton of it washes up on our shores every day. It’s a no-brainer that developing this resource should be a priority for the so-called smart economy.

One company that is taking a lead in the hi-tech application of Ireland’s seaweed resources is Ocean Harvest Technology, based in Tuam. After seven years of research, Ocean Harvest is ready to start commercial production of a new salmon-feed ingredient, which some experts believe could help revolutionise the €6bn global salmon-farming industry.

It’s an industry that has been dogged by environmental, animal welfare and food safety concerns, but some of these issues could be addressed by Ocean Harvest’s organic OceanFeed salmon-feed ingredient, which is made from a mix of seaweeds — 40pc of which is sourced in Irish waters.

OceanFeed replaces the synthetic chemical additives and colourants currently used in salmon fish feed and has been shown to improve the health of the environment in which the fish are reared. Test results have also confirmed that fish eating OceanFeed have increased resistance to sea-lice infestation, one of the big environmental problems in salmon farming.

Patrick Martin recognises the issues facing the salmon industry:

As an industry, salmon farming has taken significant criticism in terms of environmental impact.

Mr Martin is an Irish seafood expert, who co-founded Ocean Harvest along with Dr Stefan Kraan, an internationally recognised authority on seaweed and former head of the Irish Seaweed Centre at NUI Galway.

The long-term importance and value of aquaculture means that sustainable solutions have to be found and we believe OceanFeed will be a key ingredient in making the industry more environmentally as well as financially sustainable. EWOS, one of the main suppliers of feed for the global salmon farming industry, assisted Ocean Harvest on the technical side of manufacturing its OceanFeed product, and Dr Kraan says the industry response has been very positive. “It’s a slow process, but there are contracts in place, and the big retail players [such as] Tesco and Sainsbury’s are interested,” he said.

Ocean Harvest’s salmon feed ingredient was developed after several years of research into the commercial application of seaweed. Dr Kraan believes it’s just one example of the type of product that could be developed from the seaweed species in Irish waters. “We could build a whole industry around seaweed”, he said.

The Norwegians have been at it for the last 50 years. Harvesting seaweed is like cutting your lawn; it always grows back. Apart from the food industry, there are many other applications in the medical, alginates and cosmetics areas, and seaweed could also be a key ingredient in the production of bioethanol.

There are 625 species of seaweed around the Irish coastline, so Ireland should be heaven on Earth for seaweed researchers and entrepreneurs.

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