Sustainable seaweed cultivation is viable, Irish trials show

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

A three-year Irish project to grow three valuable species of seaweed with valuable nutritional properties in an aquaculture environment has shown that sustainable industrial-scale cultivation is viable, say researchers.

The Irish Fisheries Board BIM (Bord Iascaigh Mhara), which is undertaking research with industrial and academic partners, said that cultivated Laminaria digitata​ (a brown seaweed ‘kelp’) has been grown “very successfully”​ on longlines in Roaring Water Bay, Southwest Ireland, with this winter’s pending harvest the first to be undertaken on a pilot scale in Europe.

Functional promise

Seaweed offers great potential as a functional ingredient, with beneficial components claimed to lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, fight obesity, promote healthy digestion and tackle free radicals. Moreover, it is virtually fat and calorie-free, making its nutritional extracts increasingly popular amongst commercial enterprises.

The global functional foods market anticipated to be worth US $90.5bn by 2013, and the Irish government is determined to develop what minister for agriculture, fisheries and food Sean Connick called a “relatively small niche sector​”. The Irish seaweed industry is currently worth €10m annually, but the government plans to grow this figure to €20m by 2013.

Seaweed is a lucrative market, according to the BIM, with dried and packaged Laminaria digitata​ – used as a functional ingredient to combat cellulite and obesity – can sell for €10- €16/kg for bulk quantities. Wild-sourced and dried Palmaria​ sold in bulk amounts fetches up to €16-19/kg.

Despite positive results so far, it remains unclear how long it would be before Irish seaweed sources could be tapped by the industry, a BIM spokeswoman told “It’s hard to tell at this stage because this is still relatively small-scale: but we’re hoping to grow it significantly here in Ireland.

She added,“A lot depends on the data, with harvest biomass estimates due within two months and the success of trials for our industrial partners. But we have our target that involves hitting the €20m mark by 2013 .”

Commercial interest

Jason Whooley, CEO, BIM, said his agency was working closely with companies involved to develop and disseminate cultivation techniques for a number of key species with commercial value to meet market demand.

Speaking of wider industry interest in seaweed extracts, the spokeswoman said that Irish Seaweed Processors was looking to establish a dedicated food and nutrition business based upon macro algae. She added that Oilean Glas Teo (OGT) is also researching seaweed as a functional food.

Two red seaweeds with potential nutritional benefits, Palmaria palmata ​and Porphyro sp.​ are also being cultivated in the trial, and after an initial laboratory phase both will be grown at sea. Large-scale sea growth of the first will begin this winter, although the Marine Institute said more research was needed before Porphyro sp​. was trialled, as cultivating it is difficult and expensive.

The cultivation project marks a collaboration between the BIM, Irish Marine Institute, academic and industrial partners. It is connected to the government's €5.2m Marine Functional Foods Research Initiative (NutraMara), which forms part of Ireland's €365m Sea Change Strategy, itself part of Ireland's National Development Plan for 2007-2013.

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