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Seaweed: Should people eat more of it?

Sushi rolls, miso soup and seaweed salad

Seaweed is unexploited in Western cuisine, new research says. But while it is popular in Asia, could it become a staple food elsewhere?

It has been eaten by coastal people since prehistoric times, and today 145 species of red, brown or green seaweed are used worldwide as food.

But modern Westerners have lost their appetite for the stuff.

“We’ve forgotten to eat seaweed,” says physicist Prof Ole Mouritsen, from the University of Southern Denmark.

In China, Japan and Korea seaweed has for centuries formed part of the daily diet, and demand far outstrips supply.

But despite the West embracing sushi, its consumption of seaweed is “minimal”, according to new research in the journal Trends in Food Science and Technology.

That’s because people don’t like the idea of eating something washed up and smelling on the seashore, says Mouritsen.

“You wouldn’t go to an orchard and eat the rotting food on the ground,” he says, making an analogy.

But his research suggests that its time to embrace seaweed as an important food. “There’s a whole world of algae out there that can be developed,” he says.

There are around 10,000 species of macroalgae, and they are among the least studied groups of organisms.

UK waters hold about 630 species, but only around 35 have been used in cooking, so there is plenty of uptapped potential, agrees trained chef and forager Fergus Drennan.

“If you were absolutely genius in the kitchen you could probably push that figure up to about 90,” he says.

Laver oatcakes topped with cheese and laver
Image captionLaver oatcakes: Laver seaweed remains a popular delicacy in Wales

“We have a coastline that’s almost as big as the coastline of Japan, which is the greatest seaweed-eating culture in the world… we’ve got as many varieties but we just don’t use it.”

Some traditional seaweed dishes have been preserved in the West, particularly in coastal areas such as California and Maine in the US, British Columbia and Nova Scotia in Canada, and in the cuisines of Brittany and Wales, where laverweed (Porphyra) is mixed with oats to make laverbread (bara lawr).

In Iceland dulse is eaten in dried form as a snack, and mixed in to salads, bread dough and curds, and in Ireland dillisk is also eaten as a snack, while carrageen (Irish moss) is used for jellies and puddings.

But Prof Mouritsen advocates embracing seaweed via an emerging scientific discipline known as “gastrophysics”, which deconstructs cooking and gastronomy.

Recently a Sheffield Hallam University study found seaweed can be used in bread as an alternative to salt.

Seaweeds contain natural antioxidants such as polyphenols, and have high levels of minerals such as calcium. They are high in both soluble and insoluble dietary fibres.

Seaweed protein content ranges from 7-35% of its dry weight, although some species like “nori” (Porphyra spp) contain as much as 47% protein.

But getting Westerners to eat more seaweed isn’t straightforward.

The Cleggan Seaweed Company in Galway, Ireland produces flaked seaweed, harvesting and drying wild dillisk, kelp, sea spaghetti and carrageen.

It was sold in the high-end store Harvey Nichols until the artisan company could no longer keep up with demand.

But Cleggan Seaweed’s Shane Forsythe says in Ireland seaweed is associated with poverty, making it a hard product to sell to the mainstream.

“The problem is… this learning curve of actually getting people to accept and buy the stuff,” he says.

One way is to incorporate it in to “normal” foods, says Dr Craig Rose, executive director of the Seaweed Health Foundation. “It’s very much about putting it into existing foods that people are used to, to enhance the flavour and enhance the nutrition.”

 

Homegrown seaweed is mostly gathered by hand. “If you’re handpicking it there’s only so much of a market you can supply,” he says.

“It’s weather dependent, it’s seasonal, and businesses have problems meeting their demand from wild supply at the moment.”

One option is to farm seaweed. As well as being hand-collected, seaweed can be grown on ropes or gathered by mechanical harvesters.

In Ireland, the seaweed industry is worth €18m (£14.7m) a year, according to the Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish fishery board.

On the Galway coast, Forsythe’s firm picks seaweed off the rocks at low tide. The dark seaweeds are dried out, and the carrageen is bleached in the sun until it turns a creamy-white colour.

“At the moment sea spaghetti is nice and young and it’s tender,” he says.

It’s grown for speciality products including food and cosmetics, as well as “low value” products such as animal feeds, agricultural products, plant supplements and specialist fertilisers.

However, Hughes believes the edible seaweed business in the UK will never reach the same heights as in Asia, where in countries such as Indonesia, it has been farmed close to shore for years.

Also, some seaweed species aren’t always as healthy as they might seem.

Hijiki is a seaweed variety containing high levels of inorganic arsenic. In the past, various authorities, including the Food Standards Agency in the UK, have recommended not eating this particular variety, as inorganic arsenic has been linked to cancer.

Seaweed harvester
Image captionThe Hebridean Seaweed Company uses mechanical harvesters

Other seaweeds contain polysaccharides which can inhibit the digestion of proteins.

But generally “it’s an extraordinarily nutritious source of food…” says Dr Rose, “and it has things in it that land plants don’t have in the same levels or the same balance.”

How much seaweed ends up on our plates, it seems, will be a matter of taste.

Seaweed: THE SALTY SNACK THAT WAY MORE PEOPLE SHOULD BE EATING

seaweed snack

Unless it’s serving an architectural purpose in a sushi roll, most Westerners don’t think of seaweed as food. But humans have been eating seaweed since prehistoric times, and it’s still consumed daily in places like Japan, China, and Korea. So what do these Asian countries know that we don’t?

Simply put: Seaweed is both delicious and really, really, ridiculously good for you. Let me count the ways:

It’s a great source of prebiotics

You’ve heard of probiotics, the good bacteria found in foods like yogurt that help keep your gut healthy. Well, prebiotics are essentially fuel for probiotics: special plant fibers that nourish the good bacteria that are already there. Seaweed is rich in polysaccharides that function as prebiotics, and therefore it can help keep your gastrointestinal tract — and anyone you share a bathroom with — happy.

Protein abounds

Seaweed, especially red varieties such as nori (the kind most sushi chefs use), is a terrific source of protein, which is great news for all of us but especially for vegetarians and vegans. Our meat-eschewing friends will also be glad to hear that this sea vegetable is one of the few non-animal sources of vitamin B12, an important nutrient that assists in the maintenance of nerve and blood cells, helps make DNA, and protects against anemia.

It helps keep your heart ticking

With heart disease still topping the list of the leading causes of death in the United States, we could all stand to give our hearts a little more love. Snacking on seaweed is one way to do that, due to its antioxidants and “healthier salt” content. It’s one of the foods most frequently recommended for those with high blood pressure, and some studies show that eating seaweed could help prevent cardiovascular disease.

It’s got loads of iodine, which is a good thing

Thanks to the advent of iodized salt in the 1920s, and subsequent efforts by the World Health Organization to make it universally available, the incidence of goiters and other horrifying symptoms of iodine deficiency has decreased dramatically. Despite the great strides made in reducing iodine deficiency, millions of people still don’t get enough of it. Luckily, seaweed is one of the best food sources of iodine out there.

Yes, it’s algae, and algae are some of the best foods you can eat

If you can overlook the fact that most of your food grows in the dirt, then surely you can accept a little algae in your life. Plus, they’re yummy. There’s even a type that tastes just like bacon — really. And seaweed’s not the only algae you’ll find on supermarket shelves. Spirulina and chlorellaare two types of algae powder that you can sprinkle into smoothies or take in capsule form.

It’s readily available and totally affordable

A good way to get your feet wet with seaweed (see what I did there?) is to order sushi, miso soup, or seaweed salad at your local Japanese restaurant. Feeling adventurous? Up the ante and make your own sushi at home. If you prefer to keep it simple, snag some “seaweed snacks” at your grocery or health-food store. (Trader Joe’s has its own ultra-cheap version.) These are typically sheets of dried, roasted seaweed you can eat like chips — but with way less guilt.

KELP: IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER

DEE1503Seaweed16

More and more Mainers, from lobstermen to food-truck vendors, are betting that seaweed will soon become a staple of the American diet.

By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Douglas Merriam

If you’ve seen the Food Network’s Chopped, you’ll grasp the challenge that Hillary Krapf presented to vendors at the first Maine Seaweed Festival, held last Labor Day weekend at Southern Maine Community College’s waterfront campus in South Portland. Krapf, who calls herself a “seaweed educator and activist,” insisted that vendors use Maine seaweed as a “basket ingredient,” which they had to incorporate into every food item. Further, Krapf, told them, “You can’t be boring. You can’t just sprinkle a little seaweed on the top.”

For the most part, the vendors rose to the challenge. Said Sam Gorelick, whose business card identified him as “Chief Dude” at Portland’s Fishin’ Ships, “It was a chance to try some cool trial-and-error.”

Gorelick’s offerings included the High Thai’d — pollock coated with batter made from Thai basil, chili, and a sea algae known as Atlantic laver, topped with ginger and served with spicy Thai aioli.

Charlie Ely, of Portland’s Locally Sauced burritos, faced a stiffer challenge: incorporating seaweed into Mexican food. He used sugar kelp. “We’ve been able to infuse it into our three main sauces: blueberry chipotle barbecue — that’s great with everything; it would go with toothpaste — citrus serrano, and mango habanero. Instead of a vinegar-based sauce, we use a citrus base and you need a little bit of salt with that. That’s where the seaweed plays a role. I take a simplistic approach with my sauces. Less is more — don’t take away from what’s there. So to be able to use seaweed as a salt substitute and actually use less of it — that’s dandy. I was surprised at how well it worked.”

In this case, the judges weren’t celebrity chefs — they were families enjoying an outdoor festival on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Their verdicts on the seaweed smorgasbord?

“Tasty. I’d order this again,” said Portland’s Beth Eilers, after trying Fishin’ Ships fish tacos made with dulse batter. Her husband, Mike Podolsky, had opted for Maine Grain Alliance’s wood-fired pizza topped with sugar kelp rings. “Not much taste, bad or good,” he said. “But it was a texture, and it gave it some [nutritional] oomph.”

Beth and Mike’s two boys, Zeke and Eli, gave the pizza a thumbs-down. (You could almost hear Chopped host Ted Allen gently breaking the news: “Maine Grain Alliance — you’ve been chopped.”)

The boys did, however, love the dessert round, thanks to Lear’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream of Wiscasset. Probably the most successful Lear’s creation was Low Tide, a ginger/citrus ice cream speckled with the same vibrant green sugar kelp that had failed to impress the boys as faux pepperoni.

With seaweed, more so than with other foods, presentation matters.

To most people,” says Sarah Redmond, a marine extension associate at Maine Sea Grant, “seaweed is the stuff washed up on the beach, which tends to be rotting and full of flies.”

The Maine Seaweed Festival, which grew out of a coffee-shop conversation between Redmond and Krapf, is part of an effort by the state and the seaweed industry to rehabilitate seaweed’s image. “There’s just not a lot of awareness that we have all these amazing sea vegetables in our own backyard,” says Redmond. “What we’re talking about are beautiful, healthy, living sea plants.”

Shep Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables harvests seaweed.

Shep Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables harvests seaweed.

“Seaweed is such an undervalued fishery,” agrees Krapf. “People don’t even realize that it is a recognized fishery here in Maine. And it’s ancient. This knowledge is indigenous — it’s not something that we’re just finding out.”

While seaweed may seem exotic as a menu ingredient, Mainers have been using it as fertilizer since the earliest days of the colonists. (Back then it was called sea manure, suggesting that seaweed’s public-image problem isn’t new.) Rockweed is still used as fertilizer, and the harvest still comprises the bulk of the seaweed industry in Maine, although not everyone believes that’s a good thing (see “The Rockweed Controversy,” below). Only in recent decades has a small segment of harvesters focused on seaweed as a food source.

Shep Erhart was one of the first. In 1970, he dropped out of medical school to pursue a different path, and he and his wife, Linnette, headed north from metro New York with the idea of settling on Prince Edward Island. “Long story short, we ended up in Franklin,” he says. “We were part of the first wave of back-to-the-landers up this way.”

“What we’re talking about are beautiful, healthy, living sea plants.”  — Sarah Redmond

The back-to-the-landers also waded into the water. “We were eating macrobiotically, and the most expensive thing on our menu was seaweed,” Erhart says. “We saw this [local] seaweed that looked just like the wakame, which is a Japanese seaweed. So we said, ‘Jeez, let’s try that.’ And we loved it. It was delicious — still one of my favorite seaweeds.”

That wakame substitute was alaria, a brown kelp that Erhart first harvested at Schoodic Point. He and Linnette used it in a pot of miso soup. Soon they began experimenting with other types of seaweed, such as sugar kelp and dulse.

Although Erhart’s earliest harvests were strictly for his own use (“We were way ahead of the curve on eating local”), he was soon shipping seaweed out of state as well. “We had this whole network of macrobiotic folks in Boston and New York,” he says, “and when they heard we had got this seaweed, they’d say, ‘Gee, send us a pound.’ So we’d go out and harvest a pound. And one thing led to another — very slowly.”

By 1980, Erhart was the chief seaweed supplier for what was then the country’s largest natural-foods store, Boston’s Erehwon. (“That’s nowhere spelled backwards,” Erhart says. “Typical of the age.”) By 1992, Erhart’s company, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, had moved out of his house and into a former machine shop in Franklin. The company, which has about 18 full-time employees, plans further expansion soon.

Business spiked in 2011, when a tsunami triggered a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, releasing radioactive material across a wide region. Because seaweed is rich in natural iodine, it helps protect the thyroid from exposure to the radioactive variety. And because many consumers in the large Asian market feared contamination in the Pacific, they looked to the U.S. for sources of Atlantic seaweed. “Since Fukushima, we’ve just been slammed,” Erhart says.

Ron Hinkle (left) and Jay Mayer stand nearly knee-deep in a boat full of sugar kelp, harvested off South Addison near Flat Island in outer Pleasant Bay.

Ron Hinkle (left) and Jay Mayer stand nearly knee-deep in a boat full of sugar kelp, harvested off South Addison near Flat Island in outer Pleasant Bay.

But seaweed offers more than iodine. Multiple studies have found that large-scale industrial agriculture, which emphasizes efficiency, leaches nutrients from the soil — and that, in turn, has led to a depletion of the vitamins and minerals in many fruits and vegetables in the produce section of your local market.

Seaweed can more than make up the difference. In addition to its high protein content, for example, dulse “has got every mineral your body uses,” says Erhart. “It’s got relatively low carbohydrates and almost no fat. The nutrient profile is very positive.”

Because of that, says Erhart, “Some people who are mineral deficient get around it and they go crazy. Before they know it, they’ve eaten a whole bag, like candy. And it won’t make you sick sick, but it will make you very thirsty and it can kind of buzz you out because it’s so energizing. Like anything, you need to eat it in moderation. A little bit goes a long way.”

The colonists called it sea manure, suggesting seaweed’s image problem is not new.

Because of that big bang for the nutritional buck, a handful of ambitious Mainers are bullish on seaweed’s future as a food source. “Maine is the first state in the U.S. to commercially farm kelp,” says Redmond. “We’re definitely leaders now. We already have aquaculture laws in place that give you a framework to start farming seaweed. A lot of other states don’t have a clear, established system, so their regulators are going, ‘We don’t even know what this is or how to deal with it — so you can’t do it.’ In Maine, the DMR [Department of Marine Resources] has a terrific set of guidelines. So in terms of trying to develop an industry, Maine is unique.”

Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, which currently gets its seaweed from a network of independent harvesters (“Very independent,” Erhart says), is among the companies that have begun experimenting with the farmed variety. That raises a question: Will America cultivate a large enough appetite for kelp to justify large-scale cultivation? “Not as we sell it right now,” says Erhart. “It will probably have to be hidden in something, like a teabag or a morning croissant.”

Tollef Olson, CEO and founder of Ocean Approved, LLC, is among those betting the farm on seaweed. “This is the longest surfboard in my quiver!” Olson yells above the roar of a 90-horsepower Honda engine. He is heading across Casco Bay in his 18-foot Maritime skiff, Longboard, and he can’t conceal his glee as he thump-thump-thumps through the wake of a passing tug.

Like nearly everyone else connected with the seaweed industry, Olson, a native Mainer, loves the ocean. He enjoys navigating the gantlet of multicolored lobster buoys, smiling as he points out a pair of porpoises doing a synchronized-swimming routine. It’s mid-September and there’s a bite in the breeze, but Olson, a year-round surfer, is wearing flip-flops and shorts. “I hold out as long as I can,” he says.

Fort Gorges, a mid-19th-century relic, is visible to starboard. To port looms a mammoth cruise ship, a symbol of the waterfront’s present. And full speed ahead, in the lee of Little Chebeague Island, lies a glimpse of what Olson hopes is a key to a promising future.

It’s not much to look at.

A 24-foot harvest barge, equipped with a couple of davits, is moored in relatively shallow water, away from the navigation channel and the lobster traps. The bottom is muddy here. Olson cuts the engine as he approaches, and the sudden quiet falls like a blanket. Olson grabs a buoy and hauls up some line, which looks fouled. But it isn’t; the green stuff is supposed to be there.

Olson’s voice rises. “There’s one!” he says. “See that little guy waving?”

Fluttering like a tiny green banner in the current is a baby sugar kelp. It’s only about 2 inches long. But by March it will be several feet long, growing at a rate of up to four inches a day at peak season.

“Some people who are mineral deficient get around it, and they go crazy.”  — Shep Erhart

Olson predicts that seaweed farming will grow just as fast along the Maine coast. “In 10 or 15 years,” he says, “I think seaweed could rival lobsters as an industry.”

Mainers take such pronouncements with a grain of sea salt. Olson understands; he’s heard it all before. “I’m 58 years old, and having been involved in numerous fisheries, including mussels, urchins, etc., I have not seen a fishery that humankind cannot destroy in very short order,” he says. “We see farming kelp as being part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem.”

Overharvesting has devastated conventional fin- and shellfisheries. Fish farms can help restore populations, but they can also introduce new problems, such as high concentrations of nitrogen. That’s where seaweed farms can, in theory, be part of the solution.

“In Asia, they’ve started growing seaweed around these big salmon farms to absorb nutrients that burden the water column in the surrounding area,” says Erhart. “It’s called integrated aquaculture, or the fancy name for it is IMTA — integrated multi–trophic aquaculture.”

Seaweed farms can complement existing fisheries in more ways than one. “Kelp is countercyclical,” says Olson. “We can plant it in September or October, even as late as November into December, and have it harvested by May and early June. That’s completely the opposite of the strong point of the lobster season.”

Olson boasts that Ocean Approved is the first American seaweed farm “to take kelp from spore to table.” (The company develops sporophytes in the marine sciences lab at Southern Maine Community College; after four to six weeks, the young kelp plants are ready for the farm.) He rattles off facts, figures, and catch phrases with the practiced delivery of someone who has spent considerable time courting investors. That’s understandable; to succeed, kelp farming requires substantial buy-in, not just from the financial sector but also from researchers, regulators, and the working waterfront.

“In 10 or 15 years, I think seaweed could rival lobsters as an industry.”  — Tolef Olson

“What we need for infrastructure isn’t quite there yet,” says Redmond, whose broad job description includes work at the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, “because if you have a whole farm of kelp, you need to be able to get it out of the water and process it and find people to sell it to. We still need to build that whole chain in order to have people jump in on this and have it be commercially viable as a large-scale industry.”

The most important link in the chain, of course, is the last one: the consumer. To become commercially viable, seaweed has to make the same transition that lobster made long ago — from off-putting to sought-after.

That was the idea behind the food trucks at the Maine Seaweed Festival. “Part of what we wanted to do was to have people eat normal American foods that they like — like ice cream, burritos, and pizza — with seaweed in them,” Redmond says. “Just to show them that the idea isn’t that crazy.

“It’s not about sitting down and eating a great big bowl of seaweed. It’s about figuring ways to incorporate it into your everyday foods. And by eating a little bit every day, over time you get the benefits.”

The festival, incidentally, will be back at Southern Maine Community College this year on August 29 (for details, visit seaweedfest.com). If you go, try the chicken burrito with the citrus serrano sauce. You won’t even know there’s seaweed in there. But your body will.

 

Rockweed: The Harvest Is Cut and Dried. The Issues Are Not.

Sugar kelp, dulse, alaria, and all other edible seaweeds combined account for only about 5 percent of Maine’s annual harvest. The remaining 95 percent consists of rockweed, that slimy brown stuff you often see clinging to rocks at low tide. Fresh rockweed is used to form the bed for the traditional Maine clambake. Once it’s dried and processed, rockweed is a versatile commodity used in nutritional supplements, cosmetics, animal feed, and fertilizer.
To meet this demand, more and more Mainers are making the switch from harvesting traditional fin- and shellfish to rockweed. Maine had just 33 licensed rockweed harvesters in 2003; the number is closer to 60 today. And the harvest has grown from fewer than 4 million pounds in 2003 to about 15 million in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Former lobsterman Doug Wood, of Bremen, is among the converts. “Lobster prices kept going down,” Wood says, “and I saw an opportunity to get into the seaweed business when a mechanical-harvest boat became available.” Now, Wood, who’s in his mid-40s, actually sees a future — something he hadn’t been able to do as a lobsterman. “I hope to be able to pass this on to my son,” he says.

But some conservationists worry that Wood and others like him have simply traded one shortsighted plan for another. “If we take away too much rockweed, it’s not going to be ecologically sustainable,” says Robin Hadlock Seeley, a Cornell University marine biologist who serves as an academic advisor at the Shoals Marine Laboratory. “The problem is, we don’t know where that point is.” Seeley, who formed the Rockweed Coalition in 2008, has particular concerns about Cobscook Bay. “There’s a very tall rockweed forest there,” she says, “and companies are drawn to it.”

The state has tried to broker a compromise in Cobscook Bay by creating no-harvest zones and limiting each harvester to one of 36 designated sectors to prevent overlap. It’s a first step in a long-range Rockweed Management Plan that’s bound to become more comprehensive with time.

Unless the whole idea of rockweed management becomes moot. “The interesting thing is that the state sells us a license and they also patrol with wardens,” says Wood, “and yet they won’t claim exclusive ownership of the resource.”

It all goes back to the Colonial Ordinance, which grants oceanfront property rights to the mean low-water mark in Maine, with exceptions for “fishing, fowling, and navigation.”

Harvesting seaweed, which is regulated as a fishery, while navigating the intertidal zone at high tide would seem to qualify under two of the ordinance’s three enumerated exceptions. Nevertheless, it says right on the harvest permit: “Since ownership of the seaweed in the intertidal zone is an unsettled question that only Maine courts can definitively answer, the State of Maine takes no position on (1) whether the public may harvest seaweed from those areas without interfering with the private property rights of the upland owner or (2) whether the upland property owners may prohibit the public harvest of seaweed in those areas.”

And that probably means that those who don’t see eye to eye on rockweed harvesting will eventually see each other in court.

Aquaculture: Can We Save Oceans by Farming Them?

A small but growing number of entrepreneurs are creating sea-farming operations that cultivate shellfish together with kelp and seaweed, a combination they contend can restore ecosystems and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification.

by richard schiffman

Peter Morenus/UConn
Ocean farmer Bren Smith (right) and biologist Charles Yarish examine harvested kelp.

Bren Smith, a 44-year-old Newfoundland-born former cod fisherman, grows shellfish and the newly trendy sea vegetable kelp on what he calls “the world’s first 3D ocean farm” off the Connecticut shore in Long Island Sound. His multi-species hanging garden has already become a model for a new kind of low-impact aquaculture that, he says, can produce the cheapest and most ecologically sustainable food on the planet.

“I don’t call it aquaculture,” Smith corrects me, as his 24-foot lobster boat, Mookie III, cruises through a maze of buoys in the Thimble Islands, an archipelago of small, wooded islets just off the coast. He wants nothing to do with the conventional aquaculture industry, which he says has exported the bad habits of land-based agriculture to the sea — creating sterile monocultures; fouling coastal waters with pesticides, antibiotics, and organic pollutants; and endangering wild fish stocks through the spread of diseases from their less-healthy domesticated cousins.

Unlike most terrestrial farms or conventional aquaculture, Smith’s low-tech approach has no need for agro-chemicals, fertilizer, or antibiotics. In season, 20-foot fronds of leathery brown sugar kelp grow from taut horizontal lines connecting the farm’s buoys. Steel cages and nylon socks stocked with shellfish dangle below the water’s surface.

Smith says that his brand of integrated “ocean farming” actually revitalizes degraded or dying ecosystems by creating seaweed groves that become nurseries and sanctuaries for many marine species. It’s a pro-active approach to conservation, he says, that goes beyond the growing movement to create no-fishing reserves. “In an era of climate change, you could set aside the entirety of the world’s oceans in preserves and they are still going to die,” he says. “What we really need is engines of restoration within our conservation zones.”

Restorative ocean farming is gaining traction in other parts of North America. In Maine, Paul Dobbins, the founder of Ocean Approved, started what he calls America’s first integrated seaweed and oyster farm in 2009, producing kelp cubes for use in smoothies, as well as a line of kelp “sea slaw,” “sea rounds,” and “wraps.” In Alaska, 31 sea farms are now operating; five are growing kelp along with oysters and other shellfish. The Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture just added kelp and mussel production to a salmon farm in New Brunswick. The kelp recaptures some of the nitrogen and phosphorus released from wastes that escape from the aquaculture pens, helping make salmon farming — whose high concentration of fish produce large amounts of fecal material — measurably cleaner.

Smith harvests up to 30 tons of kelp per acre, as well as 250,000 oysters, mussels, and scallops.

And in Tamil Nadu, in southern India, small seaweed farms have augmented their production by adding cages in which fast-growing cobia fish are raised. One operation there plans to raise mussels, oysters, and lobster in conjunction with seaweed farming.

These initiatives are paying economic as well as ecological dividends for the small but growing cadre of ocean farmers. On each of his 20 acres at the Thimble Islands Ocean Farm, Smith harvests up to 30 tons of kelp per year — a yield that dwarfs what is grown on most land-based farms — as well as roughly 250,000 oysters, mussels, and scallops. At that rate of production, ocean farms totaling the size of Washington State could feed the entire planet, he asserts.

But producing truckloads of seaweed — an integral part of his operation — is the easy part. Getting Americans in particular to eat it has proven a lot harder.

Kelp has been added to stews and broths and processed into sushi wrapping in East Asia for centuries. Still, it remains mostly a novelty here. Smith has enlisted chefs, such as Brooks Headley of New York’s vegetarian Superiority Burger, to develop dishes that people will want to eat. While at Del Posto restaurant in New York, Headley served barbecued gluten-free kelp noodles with parsnips and breadcrumbs.

The market for kelp has grown in recent years as consumers become aware of its nutritional benefits. Smith boasts that kelp provides more protein than soy, more vitamin C than orange juice, as much heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids as many fish, as well as minerals like iodine, zinc, and magnesium that have made it a favorite with the supplement industry.

We need to push wild fish to the edges and put sustainably produced bivalves and sea vegetables at the center.’

Smith says he can no longer keep up with the demand from gourmet eateries and specialty food manufacturers. He hopes that the modest popularity of kelp portends a larger trend to come. “We are trying to reimagine the seafood plate,” he told me. “We need to push wild fish to the edges — make it an occasional treat for special occasions — and put sustainably produced bivalves and sea vegetables at the center.”

Smith has set up the non-profit GreenWave to offer hands-on training to future ocean farmers. To date, 10 apprentices have set up their own farms, mostly in New England, with 10 more soon to do so, Smith says. GreenWave guarantees the purchase of 80 percent of the farmers’ crops at triple the market rate for the first five years. The organization has also established the largest kelp hatchery in the world in an economically challenged neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, as well as a farmer-owned facility to process, store, and ship members’ produce.

“We’re not franchising this like McDonalds,” says Smith. “That’s the old economic model. We’re offering our farm plans for free to anyone who wants them, so that folks can set up their own businesses. But we’ll give them help with the supply chain.”

GreenWave is also talking with the U.S. Department of Energy about developing biofuels from kelp, according to Smith. Initial feasibility studies suggest that an acre of kelp can produce 2,000 gallons of ethanol, five times the amount derived from corn. And GreenWave has partnered with the Yale Sustainable Food Program to create kelp-based organic fertilizers.

Years of research will be required before these applications become commercially viable. But seaweed farming is already experiencing a small boom in Maine and southern New England, due in part to fears that product from Asia may be tainted with radioactivity from the Fukushima Daichi power plant.

Smith says he sees concrete evidence of the restorative value of combined kelp/bivalve cultivation at his own farm. With the help of his farm manager, Asa Dickerson, Smith winches up a tiered lantern-net holding baby mussels, along with two hitchhiking soft-shelled crabs.

“Those crabs are a sign that we’re rebuilding the ecosystem,” he effuses. The farm’s underwater scaffolding provides a home for crabs and other invertebrates and marine plants. “The best commercial and recreational fishing is right here,” Smith says with a sweep of his arms. “That’s because we’re creating a reef that is bringing the life back.” Anybody can fish, swim, or boat on the premises. “We don’t own the property, we’re just renting it,” says Smith, who pays the local municipality $50 per acre for the right to farm in the bay.

Peter Morenus/UConn
Marine biologist Charles Yarish hauls kelp aboard a boat in Long Island Sound.

Shoreline communities are offering concessional rates to ocean farmers in part because they recognize the environmental benefits. They are benefits that University of Connecticut marine biologist Charles Yarish has been scientifically documenting.

Smith approached Yarish, a seaweed expert, after hurricanes Irene and Sandy smothered Smith’s shellfish beds under blankets of mud. Yarish introduced Smith to the ocean farm idea, whose key feature is suspending the growing area above the sea floor, making it less vulnerable to storms.

Yarish is bullish on kelp, which he says helps to combat two of the biggest threats to life in the seas. The first, ocean acidification, has negatively impacted the ability of bivalves to produce shells. Yarish reports that billions of commercial oyster seed perish every year from the acids created when excess carbon dioxide migrates from the air to the water. Kelp gobbles up the greenhouse gas at five times the rate of land-based plants, helping to locally mitigate acidification.

Kelp also has a hankering for nitrogen, which is a pollutant. “The number one problem in coastal zones of the U.S. is that we have too much of [nitrogen-rich] nutrients in the water, from agricultural runoff and point-source pollution from facilities like sewage treatment plants,” Yarish said.

Smith is urging government to sponsor projects to help jump-start ‘the blue-green economy.’

These nutrients cause blooms of phytoplankton that decompose at the ocean’s bottom, depleting coastal waters of the oxygen needed to support life. It is a process that can result in massive dead zones, like the one located at the outflow of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, which is currently larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Long Island Sound is also under threat, especially during the months of August and September, when the warmer waters are poorest in oxygen. The good news, says Yarish, is that “shellfish like oysters and fast-growing seaweeds like kelp can extract large quantities of nutrients and nitrogen out of the ocean.”

Connecticut is the first state in the country to develop a nitrogen-trading program (similar to the carbon-trading system currently in place in California) through which sewage treatment plants are compensated for upgrading their facilities to cut down on the nitrogen they discharge into the state’s waterways. Yarish is hoping that the program will be expanded to compensate ocean farmers for helping to lower nitrogen levels in the Sound.

Bren Smith goes still further in urging government to sponsor a large-scale project to help jumpstart “the blue-green economy.” He is calling for a research push to create profitable new products from the estimated 10,000 edible sea vegetables.

For their part, Smith says, environmentalists should forego their usual antagonist role to industry and become boosters of climate-friendly ventures like ocean farming. “The new face of environmentalism is restoring the planet, creating a robust economy, and addressing economic injustice — all at the same time,” he says. “My job is to prove that the model is economically viable at the scale that the fishing industry was.”

The challenge is to reinvent fishing in a way that helps rather than hurts the environment, says Smith. “We fisherman can’t chase fish anymore, we can’t be hunters,” he told me. “We miss that, I miss that.” But Smith maintains that as ocean farmers,

 

Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.

“we can keep the core of what we do as a profession: own our own boats, succeed or fail on our own terms, live out on the water, and have the incredible pride of continuing to feed the country.”

It is a message that has been resonating with young people like Nick Pastore. Pastore worked on a land farm after he graduated from fisheries school at the University of Connecticut. “My dream was always to have my own farm,” Pastore says. “But land in my area is going to housing subdivisions; it’s becoming too expensive for people like me who have not inherited our own farms.”

When he read about the low initial costs for ocean farming, Pastore contacted Smith, who trained him and helped him lease his own corner of the bay where Smith’s farm is located. “I get to farm and create a terrific local product,” said Pastore, who will begin operations next year. “But I’ll also be restoring an ocean habitat. It’s exciting to think that I can make that kind of change.”

AGAR-AGAR UNDER THREAT: WHY CHILE’S ‘GREEN GOLD’ IS IN DANGER OF EXTINCTION

Farmers in southern Chile still remember when they could make a living just by picking up seaweed at the beach.

Not just any seaweed, but the red algae used to make agar-agar — a jelly-like substance used in a plethora of products from ice cream to dietary supplements to cosmetics.

Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of the algae, which it exports mostly to Asia — China, Japan and Thailand.

But demand for this “green gold” and pressure on the ecosystem have grown so great that now it is under threat.

Today, instead of gathering whatever seaweed Mother Nature provides, farmers plant and harvest it in carefully regulated quantities.

On Coihuin beach at low tide, farmers with horse-drawn carts sow their seeds in the sand as the cold waters of the Pacific lap the bay, the snow-capped Andes mountains towering in the backdrop.

The chilly waters are perfect for the species, Gracilaria chilensis, which Chileans call “pelillo.”

Once the seeds grow into tangles of red algae, it will be harvested and processed to make agar-agar, a versatile substance whose many uses — textile dyes, plastics, cosmetics—include acting as a gelatin substitute.

That has created booming demand in recent years from vegetarians, vegans and people avoiding meat for religious or health reasons.

Chile, Spain and Japan, the world’s top producers, account for 60 per cent of agar-agar output, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Chile exports 1,800 tons a year.

View of ‘Pelillo’ (Gracilaria Chilensis) seaweed growing in a sandy bottom in Puerto Montt, 1016 kilometres south of Santiago on October 19, 2016.
View of ‘Pelillo’ (Gracilaria Chilensis) seaweed growing in a sandy bottom in Puerto Montt, 1016 kilometres south of Santiago on October 19, 2016.

‘Danger of extinction’

At Coihuin, farmers grow the algae old-school, planting it by hand, with no machines.

“In fifteen days it will be ready to harvest,” says one, Carlos Leiva.

“After that we’ll harvest two or three more times before February or March.”

But despite the speed with which it grows, the algae is increasingly scarce.

Leiva, who started harvesting algae as a boy, remembers when all he had to do was pick what grew naturally at the beach.

“Years ago, all this was full of seaweed. It came to my knees — my waist, even,” another farmer, Pedro Soto, told AFP with nostalgia.

“Not a single patch of beach was bare,” he said. “This year there’s less.”

Alejandro Buschmann,  director of the Centre for Research and Development of Marine Resources and Environments, echoed the farmers’ claims.

“Nearly all the (naturally occurring) algae has disappeared,” he said.

Last year, a study by the biology department at Catholic University of Chile with French research institute CNRS warned Chile’s red algae was in danger of extinction.

Archaeological evidence shows native Chileans have been eating foods made from the algae for some 15,000 years.

Over-exploitation is not the only thing threatening it.

Workers collect 'Pelillo' (Gracilaria Chilensis) seaweed during a low tide harvest in Puerto Montt, 1016 kilometres south of Santiago on October 19, 2016.
Workers collect ‘Pelillo’ (Gracilaria Chilensis) seaweed during a low tide harvest in Puerto Montt, 1016 kilometres south of Santiago on October 19, 2016.

A worm that feeds on the algae has also hit the region. Waste from nearby salmon farms is likewise threatening the plants, and the 2,000 people who depend on them for a living.

“Fish farming has filled the beach with salmon excrement,” said Soto.

The money is not what it used to be, either.

Prices have fallen sharply as supply has surged. A kilo of wet pelillo sells for 70 pesos (10 US cents) today, down from 400 in the 1980s.

Chile produces several types of algae along its 4,500-kilometre coast, exporting 6,000 tons per year.

Last year, the industry had US$246 million (RM1 billion) in exports, according to the national Fisheries Promotion Institute. — AFP

 

Photo: A worker harvests ‘Pelillo’ (Gracilaria Chilensis) seaweed during a low tide in Puerto Montt, 1016 kilometres south of Santiago on October 19, 2016.

CHILE’S SEAWEED INDUSTRY: THE QUEST FOR A SUSTAINABLE MODEL FOR OCEAN FARMING

 

The Chilean seaweed industry is bolstering economies of rural communities, providing food security, and inspiring chefs across the country. In a region (Latin America) where 34 million people are food insecure and 47 percent of the population is living in rural areas, low-input, wild seaweed cultivation makes for an accessible, relatively lucrative industry for some-odd 30,000 Chileans.

However, the rapid influx in cultivation is inching many countries closer to dangerously low seaweed populations. A team of scientists from The Journal of Applied Psychology wrote, “It is possible that overexploitation of natural seaweed resources could lead to significant ecological, economic, and social consequences at local, regional, and even global scales.” Thus, innovative, regional models of sustainability are more important than ever for the seaweed industry.

Of the country’s 750 species of seaweed, Chilean cuisine has traditionally featured cochayuyo, used in stews and as a meat substitute. Seaweed has long been a culinary feature, popular for its savory umami flavor, and its high concentration of amino acid monosodium glutamate (MSG). Additionally, seaweed’s use as a global commodity ranges from fiber, fertilizer and biofuel to Carrageenan, a polysaccharide found in red seaweeds and used throughout the food industry. Chile produces an equal 50-50 ratio of brown and red seaweed (contains Carrageenan). Recently, chefs across the country’s coastal regions are highlighting seaweed-based dishes in their restaurants, gaining international attention for illuminating indigenous marine plants. Specifically, Chile’s top-ranked restauraunt, Borago, is working to showcase not just seaweed, but a wide range of marine plants native to Chile’s mediterranean coastline.

In addition to providing drastic improvements to rural economies, the seaweed industry is becoming a huge boost for female livelihoods, as around 90 percent of seaweed farmers are women. At a time when over 50 percent of the overall, global farming population is female, yet a much smaller fraction of arable land is owned by women, it’s increasingly important to encourage more equitable agricultural ownership.

The seaweed market is an ideal one, as it doesn’t deal with land renting, landlords or high-cost inputs. Additionally, whereas many crops stay constantly susceptible to storms, monsoons or fire, ocean farming remains stable when faced with natural or environmental disasters. Because of the many incentives encouraging Chileans to enter the seaweed industry, populations are running thinner by the month. Consequently, the most pressing problem is: how can Chile effectively utilize ocean spaces to sustain seaweed populations and also harvest at an economical rate. A substantial collaboration of anthropological and scientific research is needed to prevent a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ type play-out. As the The Journal of Applied Psychology writes, “The seascapes are increasingly managed for multiple functions and services in addition to provision of food, and this requires the integration of ecological and socio-economic research, policy innovation, and public education.”

So what does the future of seaweed cultivation look like for Chile? Realistically, the future of seaweed will look more like traditional farm scapes than rugged, wild ocean cultivation. Ocean space will likely become bought, sold and traded like land, property will become carved out, outlined, and farmers will manage their seaweed plots with calculated inputs to maximize yield. Though, with the resurgence of agroecology as a utilized agricultural process, it’s possible that it can play a pivotal role in ocean farming as well. This will ensure that seaweed and other marine plant cultivation harnesses an appropriate balance of eco-smart agriculture and economically-productive farming for men and women.

Algas ganan espacio alimentario en América del Sur

Las algas marinas, un alimento rico en nutrientes que estuvo presente en la dieta regular de varios pueblos originarios de América del Sur, aparecen ahora como una  alternativa en la búsqueda de garantizar la seguridad alimentaria de América Latina y  otorgar empleo a miles de habitantes de las zonas costeras de la región. [Leer mas…]

Zulema Muñoz sale del mar cargando dos matas de cochayuyo, que acaba de arrancar de las rocas a las que se adhiere, en la costa del océano Pacífico, a las afueras del pueblo de Matanzas. Las algas marinas ganan terreno en el sector pesquero de Chile y son el sustento de miles de personas. Crédito: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Global Seaweed Market Worth 14.7 billion USD by 2021

The seaweeds market was valued at USD 10.4 billion in 2015 and is projected to reach USD 14.7 billion by 2021 at a CAGR of 6.03% from 2016 to 2021. It is majorly driven by growing application of seaweeds for medicinal purposes as well as their use in the extraction of hydrocolloids. Increasing preference for organic fertilizers, and growing health consciousness among people is also diving the market for seaweeds, as seaweeds are increasingly used for human food consumption as well as plant growth regulators. [Read more…]

 

Is Seaweed Beer The Next Big Thing?

In the latest edition of craft beer mania, seaweed beer takes center stage. NPR recently profiled Belfast, Maine-based Marshall Wharf Brewing Co., which uses seaweed in its beer. Marshall Wharf’s new beer is called Sea Belt, and is made with the brewery’s MacFindlay Scotch Ale and dried Maine sugar kelp. It debuted in Belfast on July 16. To make Seabelt, Marshall Wharf adds dried kelp into tanks of boiling brew. Six pounds of dried seaweed, which is about 60 pounds of wet seaweed, goes into a 200 gallon batch of scotch ale. The result is “more malty than hoppy, earthy like the scotch ale that it’s based on, but a bit more salty, thanks to the sugar kelp.”

Sea Belt isn’t the first seaweed beer the world has seen. Marshall Wharf owner David Carlson discovered a beer called Kelpie from Scotland a few years ago, which inspired his locally-sourced version. The brewery also isn’t a stranger to unique beer flavors. Every year in honor of the Pemaquid Oyster Festival in Damariscotta, Maine, Marshall Wharf makes Pemaquid Oyster Stout, which is made with live oysters.

seaweed

 

With the explosion of craft breweries across the country in recent years and the growing demand for small-scale, limited edition beers, it’s no surprise that brewers have been getting creative. Peanut butter jelly beer has been making a splash from Charleston, South Carolina to Northern Michigan, and California-based Island Brewing company makes an avocado ale. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. NPR reported just last week that an amateur fossil hunter has developed “bone beer, or beer made from yeast scraped from a 35-million-year-old whale fossil, to be precise.” Now seaweed beer doesn’t sound so crazy.

seaweead

But will seaweed beer hit big? The Japanese have long used seaweed in their cooking, and in Nova Scotia dried red seaweed called dulse is a popular snack. Seaweed has just recently become a mainstream snack in America — a breakthrough many people may have been skeptical about just a few years ago. Today, however, dried seaweed like Annie Chun’s and Trader Joe’s roasted seaweed snacks have permeated American consciousness and are now a regular sight at grocery stores everywhere. Could seaweed beer do the same?

seaweed beer

Bottoms up!

This Is How To Cook With Seaweed At Home (Don’t Be Afraid)

Seaweed is a nutritional superstar. It’s a great source of iodine and antioxidants, both important nutrients for regulating health. And, beyond its superfood status, the salty vegetable spruces up any old dish with its unique texture and powerful salty flavor. [Leer mas…]

nori chips

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