Placencia SeaWeed Farming Project - 04/22/16 10:36 AM
Fishermen in Placencia are farming seaweed off the Belize Barrier reef in the Caribbean Sea.
Fishermen in Placencia are farming seaweed off the Belize Barrier reef in the Caribbean Sea.
Lowell Godfrey, Fisherman and Seaweed Farmer in Placencia
At the fourth International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) held in St John’s Newfoundland, Canada, Julianne Robinson from The Nature Conservancy explained how Belize’s waters can offer more than just fishing income to support those living in coastal communities. The focus of this income diversification - seaweed mariculture.
Fishing has long formed part of the Belize culture, providing an important source of food and income for its many coastal communities.
Like many coastal nations, Belize’s fisheries have seen declines in fisheries from over exploitation and destructive fishing practices. Increasing coastal development, and climate change impacts on the ocean adds to the pressures on the low-tech, small-scale fisheries that dominate Belize’s coastal communities. Income diversification is increasingly becoming a necessity.
Working with Belize’s Placencia Fishermen Cooperative, Ms Robinson and colleagues at The Nature Conservancy developed and tested pilot mariculture farms. Working with the local community has been a central feature in the development of the mariculture project, which focuses on the red seaweed Euchemia isiforme.
Ms Robinson noted that many of Belize’s coastal communities are poverty stricken. It is by working with these communities, Ms Robinson urges, that they can become “great ocean stewards”, supporting not only their own livelihoods but contributing to healthy Belize waters that can also support other industries. The Placencia fishers have – and continue – to play a crucial role in the design of the farms, and experiments with new techniques.
Harvesting seaweed isn’t as far removed from fishing as it may at first appear. Traditionally Belize’s fishers have collected naturally growing seaweed whilst fishing species such as spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) and queen conch (Strombus gigas).
This seaweed, which is sold in local markets as food, acted as a supplement to fishers’ income, rather than the primary source of it. Whilst seaweed as a food item forms part of the mariculture business (including in the locally consumed ‘seaweed shakes’), the Placencia seaweed farmers are looking to expand their market with ‘value-added’ products, such as seaweed-based soaps, or seaweed-based thickeners for cooking.
Local demand for the seaweed and seaweed-based products is high – and still growing, though as Ms Robinson was keen to point out that, demand isn’t just restricted to the local market. Globally demand for seaweed is projected to increase at a rate of around 10 per cent per annum, offering the potential for significant economic growth for those wishing to farm seaweed. The challenge for the Placencia seaweed farmers is to scale-up its production to meet demand, and break in to the export market.
The Belize’s Placencia Fishermen Cooperative’s development of mariculture has also had a number of other benefits. Many of the seaweed farms provide work for women, helping to improve social equity in coastal communities.
The farms have also demonstrated a number of restorative functions including decreased nitrogen and phosphorous levels in waters around the farms. Locally-decreased levels of ocean acidification has been detected in the vicinity of these seaweed farms, though their potential for acidification mitigation is still unknown, and requires further investigation before any definitive conclusions can be reached.
For the spiny lobster and queen conch fisheries, these mariculture farms may also help restore declining stocks by providing habitat. Careful placement of these farms not only provides “stepping stones” allowing individuals to move between natural algal beds, but new habitat.
Increased post-larval settlement of spiny lobster has been detected, and adult settlement around these sites has been aided by the addition of artificial habitat.
The tiny Central American nation of Belize is big on fish. But these days, both fish and fishermen face an uncertain future.
Coastal development, climate change and invasive species have led to a big drop in fish stocks.
To prevent over-fishing, villagers have come up with a novel solution: farming seaweed.
Al Jazeera's David Mercer reports from Placencia, Belize.
It was a jarring, hour-long boat ride to Little Water Caye, a sliver of an island 30 km off the coast of Placencia, Belize. There was only a small wooden house on a beach, and palm trees waving in the Caribbean breeze. But offshore, invisible from the surface, lay the first sustainable seaweed farm in Central America. I helped unload the boat—food, yellow twine ropes, and snorkelling gear—everything we'd need to spend a few days planting seaweed.
The previous day, I'd walked past the headquarters of the Placencia Seaweed Co-operative on the mainland. Packages of dried seaweed, and seaweed in gel form, sat on a shelf inside the open door. The head seaweed farmer, Lowell Godfrey, greeted me and I asked him about the farm. He told me that they farm two types of red seaweed—Eucheuma and Gracilaria—and they do it using sustainable farming practices. He invited me to see for myself.
Prior to this, I knew nothing about seaweed. Yes, I ordered the occasional spicy tuna roll, but seaweed is a multi-billion dollar industry, and I soon discovered that I consume and use seaweed all the time without knowing it. So do you. It's the ultimate multitasker.
Little Water Caye, Belize, home to Central America's first sustainable seaweed farm
Its derivatives are used as emulsifiers in foods and sauces, ice cream, and beer. It's in shampoos, creams, and other cosmetics. Biofuels and fertilizers are made from seaweed, and it's used to treat a variety of ailments like arthritis, rheumatism, and radiation poisoning. Every biology student grows bacteria on seaweed-derived agar gels.
The potential to use seaweed in an even greater capacity is being explored far from Belize's tropical shores, at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Willem Brandenburg, who isn't involved with the project in Belize, has spent decades investigating how sustainable seaweed cultivation could help solve the world's imminent food production crisis.
"Our population will grow to more than nine billion by 2050," he said, "and we [will] have to double agricultural production, but decrease the use of resources by half." Seaweed can help. Traditional crops take up precious land, but seaweed grows in the sea—and thus is the only crop that doesn't require fresh water. Plus, it grows fast, year round.
Most seaweed is currently farmed using non-sustainable practices. This involves repeatedly harvesting seaweed in the wild, or using fertilizers in the water, which can lead to unwanted algal blooms. Growing it sustainably, Brandenburg stressed, means determining the best practices for planting, harvesting, and processing the crop.
Back on the aqua-farm, it's easier to see what this means.
Seaweed for sale at the headquarters of the Placencia Seaweed Co-operative in Placencia, Belize
Godfrey pointed out that Belize's coastal waters are a perfect ecosystem for such a farm: the water's depth and temperature provide enough nutrients to sustain repeated crops.
"And," Godfrey said, "the farm is a natural nursery."
Squid, lobster, octopus, and fish breed and feed there. Belize has the second-longest reef in the world, and with reefs under pressure from climate change and fishing, this is one way to promote biodiversity.
"The footprint we leave in our operation is a natural seaweed bay."
Godfrey and I swam out to a floating buoy—the only indication of the farm beneath the constant rolling waves. We had a dozen 15-metre-long yellow twine ropes and a mesh bag bulging with seaweed to plant. We put on masks and snorkels to work underwater. Godfrey showed me how to tease apart the coiled strands of the rope, break off a fragment of seaweed, slip it into the uncoiled segment, and then let the strands wind back up, trapping the seaweed inside. Move a few inches down the rope and do it again.
After an hour, I reached the end of my rope that was now stuffed with seaweed. My fingers were numb and I could barely prise apart the strands, but it was satisfying to see a fully planted rope snake away in the current around me, dozens of sprigs of seaweed all the way along. We hoped to complete 11 ropes that day but only managed six, Godfrey finishing most of them.
A single rope yields about thirty pounds of seaweed and they harvest every three months. Each plot contains eleven ropes. "We harvested starter fragments from the wild, but only once," he said. This is what makes the farm sustainable: ten ropes are for harvesting and selling, but the last is saved to use as seed stock for the next crop cycle.
Seaweed farmer Lowell Godfrey describes the process of seaweed farming to me, one morning on Little Water Caye, Belize
Along with a host of beneficial nutrients, seaweed contains proteins—a must if it's going to be a major player in future food security. "We have enough carbohydrates, we have enough fatty acids, but the one thing that's essential is protein," Brandenburg said.
This is also the reasoning behind promoting the consumption of insects, like mealworms. But the challenge for seaweed and insects is in the marketing. Seaweed and insect food products have to be tasty and people have to want to eat them. That's the real test, Brandenburg said, for the next generation of food scientists.
On my final morning, I tried a seaweed shake for breakfast. I confess that I expected a salty, fishy-smelling, greenish drink. What I was handed was white and frothy, smelling of nutmeg and coconut. And it tasted like a tropical dream.F3 News