Most of the sandy beaches and bays of Goa, India's smallest state, are dominated by tourism and fishing. Yet in the low tide pools along the a 100-km-long coastline, slimy algae, known as seaweed, have been quietly flourishing. In recent years, seaweed has gained global reknown as a wonder plant of the ocean, reported to be a renewable source of food, energy, chemicals, medicines and with an ability to mitigate climate change.

Seaweed is the common name for countless species of marine plants and algae that grow in the ocean as well as in rivers, lakes, and other water bodies. Some seaweed are microscopic while others, like the giant kelp that grow in abundant "forests", are enormous. Most are medium-sized in red, green, brown, and black hues. In many maritime countries, seaweed have been used as a source of food, medicine, and fertiliser for terrestrial agriculture.

Maria Fonseca, a professor of botany at St. Joseph Vaz College, Cortalim, Goa and author of The Manual of Algae of Anjuna says Goa's coastline has an abundance of seaweed.  In Goa, most seaweed especially sargassum is found near the rocky coastline of Anjuna. Sargassum has high levels of alginate, an extract used to make water-based products thicker or creamier. "The gels extracted from red seaweed (carrageenan) and brown seaweed (agar and alginate) are used widely as gelling, stabilising and thickening agents in food, pharmaceutical, dairy, confectionery, paper and textiles industries," Fonseca explains.

She adds that there hasn't been much research on Goa's seaweed. "We know that seaweed grows all year round. Different seasons in Goa support different varieties of seaweed. In monsoon, green seaweed grows abundantly. The season from October to December is ideal for red seaweed Porphyra (known as nori in Japan) and Gelidium and during the months from November to April we have a rich diversity of seaweed species," said Fonseca.

"In Goa, there are more than 145 documented species of seaweed," says Gabriella D'Cruz, a young marine conservationist who has been studying coral reef ecosystems, seaweed forests and cetaceans for 10 years. She is currently working towards setting up Goa's first pilot project on seaweed farming.  "Seaweed forests are very similar to coral reefs in the sense that they are almost like cities of the sea where they aggregate a lot of biodiversity. They are feeding grounds, breeding grounds and have a lot of nutrient cycling. As powerhouses of the sea, working on rebuilding or helping to sustain these are important for the general health of the oceans. Seaweeds are climate-smart algae. They absorb significant amounts of carbon, reduce ocean acidification and act as nutrient scrubbers," she explains.

Sargassum, a genus of brown seaweed on a beach. Photo by Jonathan Wilkins/Wikimedia Commons.

Global demand for seaweed

The global demand for seaweed has been expanding steadily. According to Global Market Insights, the commercial seaweed market is expected to surpass USD 95 billion by 2027. According to a publication by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), seaweeds are rich in minerals, vitamins, trace elements and bioactive substances and are called the medical food of the 21st century. Seaweed also forms the basis of gourmet foods such as kelp burgers, linguini, kelp ice cream, kelp cocktails. Traditionally, kelp was used as animal feed in Scotland. Now, there are studies showing that kelp in animal feed is highly nutritious and reduces methane gas. 

The Japanese have been using seaweed for 1,500 years. In India, Tamil Nadu has a tradition of extracting the gel-like substance to make a halwa. As many as 42 countries in the world carry out commercial seaweed activity. China leads in seaweed production, followed by North Korea, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Chile, Norway, Indonesia, USA and India. These top ten countries contribute about 95 per cent of the world's commercial seaweed volume.

Currently, food products for human consumption contribute about USD 5 billion. "If you have been watching the seaweed industry for the past five years, there's been a significant increase in beauty-related seaweed products and foods especially with veganism and vegetarianism on the rise in Europe and the U.S. They are high value so it makes sense for businesses to move into this space," said D'Cruz.

In India, seaweed is used mainly as raw material for the production of agar, alginate and liquid seaweed fertiliser (LSF). There are agar, algin and LSF industries situated along the coasts of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Sreekanth G. B., a scientist at ICAR-Central Coastal Agriculture Research Institute points out that the mariculture sector (including fish and seaweed) of India is in a developing stage and has gained attention recently due to the stagnation of the catch from the wild sector. "So the marine farming sector is a recently explored sector in our country. Fish farming for instance picked up after the 1990s and mariculture caged farming in open waters picked up in 2015," Sreekanth said.

Seaweed farming in Goa

Gabriella D'Cruz says that the fisheries sector is important to Goa's culture, ecosystem and tourism. It is time to rethink how people use oceans and design businesses that are more regenerative. Seaweed farming done in a sustainable manner is climate-smart, mimics natural systems and is regenerative, she says. Expounding the ecological benefits, D'Cruz explains, "Seaweed is a low carbon food source meaning it doesn't require arable land, irrigation or nutrients like fertilisers and it offers a viable source of income for coastal communities facing the stresses of overfishing and rising sea levels."

"In such a scenario, seaweed farming can be a really good investment for a country to make. Apart from its many commercial uses, seaweed farming is an easy addition to fishing. There are seaweed forests across the world. You can tap into your local seaweed forests and create food sources around them. Further, the integration of seaweed farms into other fisheries sectors increases the economic union by offering a fall-back plan. Protecting our seaweed forests means protecting Goa's fish breeding grounds," she adds.

Picture : Gabriella D'Cruz with fresh harvest of sargassum.

Unlike fish, seaweed is perceived differently in the state. "Most people are not aware of the commercial and ecological value of seaweed. For instance, green seaweed like Ulva is wonderful for making chutneys but in Goa, seaweed is used as fertiliser around coconut trees and in gardens so local fisherfolk haul seaweed along with their fish catch and discard it unaware of its numerous commercial and ecological benefits," adds Fonseca.

This November, D'Cruz plans to set up Goa's first pilot seaweed farm, initially with five rafts at a coastal location yet to be disclosed. "The project in sustainable seaweed farming has the potential to mitigate the loss of biodiversity of the ocean, offer bio remedial solutions to cleaning parts of the ocean and an alternative source of income to local fishing communities in the form of seaweed farming, processing, conservation, aquaculture. The project is still experimental."

She bats for adding seaweed as another product to existing aquaculture in an integrated farm, for example, a combination of seaweed and mussels/prawns/fish, which is sustainable and offers coastal communities a fall-back plan. "Seaweed forests harbour more fish life if you make them biodiverse and multispecies. It is good for the fish population and it's good for the fishing industry as well. Also, it's not an expensive investment if you live by the sea, have a boat and have a market to sell to."

"Currently, funding is being put in, but there are no guidelines or policy in Goa to structure how this funding is used," said D'Cruz, adding that she hopes to be a part of the policy structure sometime soon. She runs a  small seaweed company The Good Ocean that consults other companies that want to work with seaweed and communities interested in farming seaweed. She hopes to create a few regenerative products from seaweed.

Creating equity along the value chain

Seaweed cultivation has not been popular in India in the past though it is bestowed with a coastline of more than 17,000 km, embracing 821 species of seaweeds, according to the CMFRI publication on trends and prospects of seaweed farming in India. Only recently, seaweed cultivation is picking up in certain coastal districts of the Tamil Nadu state. Central Salt Marine Chemical Research Institute and Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute have developed culture techniques for some of the commercially important seaweed species in India. As a result of this effort, a lot of self-help groups, village youth groups and NGOs have come forward to promote seaweed cultivation as an alternate livelihood option for the coastal poor.

Considering the great demand for these resources in the international market and availability of adequate manpower and interest in the country, seaweed cultivation has a very good prospect and it can be developed as a successful cottage or co-operative sector industry. Sreekanth of ICAR Goa reiterates that seaweed farming is just gaining momentum in India. "It requires a lot of awareness programmes and capacity building to develop as a major marine farming sector. Also, the industry needs to be connected as seaweed is not directly consumed in our country. The pilot-scale projects were started in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat and found successful. Extensive surveys need to be carried out in the state in order to identify suitable sites for farming."

According to a recent government proposal, Seaweed Cultivation and Value Chain Development in India, seaweed farming is a labour-intensive process and generates employment at every level, primarily for women. Workers who do the drying, cleaning, sorting and harvesting could earn Rs. 500-700 per day. The proposal states efforts will be made to prioritise the formation and promotion of FFPOs, support to cooperatives and women SHGs in the potential coastal areas in the country. The government of India has allocated Rs. 637 crore for the cultivation of nutrition-rich marine plants as part of the Rs 20,050-crore central scheme Pradhan Mantri  Matsya Sampada Yojana to be spent over the next five years mainly as subsidy support.

Referring to Goa, Sreekanth says, "We are yet to carry out surveys and studies on the suitability of the ecology, economics and socio-economic implications of the seaweed farming in Goa. For this, extensive dialogues need to be initiated between the stakeholders and fishermen communities. Moreover, the premium institutes working on seaweed cultivation such as ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute need to be invited to identify sites and locations suitable for seaweed farming in the state. There is a potential for seaweed farming if it is done in a participatory mode after gaining the confidence of the local communities. Moreover, the producers need to be connected to optimal market situations and industries in order to gain the deserving benefits for them."

D'Cruz agrees, saying, "Seaweed farming happens in the inshore areas of the ocean, a space usually co-managed by artisanal fishers. I think the important thing is to recognise that while the oceans are the commons, we have to respect the rights of access of fishing communities and work with them to integrate seaweed farming into their existing fisheries activities."

Aaron Lobo, an interdisciplinary marine conservation scientist working at the interface of conservation, livelihoods and sustainable coastal development says, "Unfortunately, seaweed farming in India like most mariculture, including aquaculture, is controlled by people who own land or private players with funding. In such a scenario, small fishing communities tend to lose access to traditional fishing grounds. Since most fishing occurs within 12 nautical miles, it's important that the coastal commons remain with fishing communities. There should be equity along the value chain, emphasis on farming natural seaweed species and local coastal communities should be kept at the forefront."