On Scottish Seaweed
Back in 2013, seaweed wasn’t really a thing. I was driving up to Fife from Cornwall that September, white van full to the gun’ls with seaweed harvesting and monitoring equipment, towing my currach boat behind me. I’d had enough of Cornwall, too many sharp elbows, too white, too self-satisfied. I’d set up a community seaweed business in 2008, and in 2009 negotiated the first commercial licence in England. The BBC, Daily Mail, Guardian all came calling – but I failed with the business aspects.
And now seaweeds are a real THING. Some consider them a panacea for EVERYTHING. Some call them superfoods. Suddenly, the 70% of the globe that is water is seen in three dimensional terms. No longer a dump for our shite, but somewhere to explore, to make fortunes, to become SOMEONE. Yep, a new frontier of exploration, with a product line that is out-with the grumpy, rebarbative fishy place.
In Scotland we have a nascent industry that holds fast to a coherent structure. The academic heartland is the estimable Scottish Association of Marine Science; there is an industry grouping called the Scottish Seaweed Industry Association (SSIA). Artists like the Climavore collective give heart to commercial endeavours. The Hebridean Seaweed Company on the Isle of Lewis are the veterans. Eco-Cascade show us the community perspectives, whilst Mara Seaweed, Doctor Seaweed and Shore Seaweed successfully promote seaweed within the food retail sector. As the SSIA say, the mission is to make Scotland synonymous in world markets with seaweed, akin to salmon or seaweed.
The search is on for an answer to the question: “what can seaweed do for us?”. As ever, a reductive response to life forms that predate humans by perhaps five hundred million years (estimates wildly differ). The trouble is, that seaweeds might predecease us. We’ll look at this later.
So, let’s be reductive. Seaweeds – or as we might more properly say – marine macro-algae, are fascinating to study. “Green algae”, according to Vincent Doumeizel, “are still genetically closer to tomato plants than red algae.” But what are they FOR?
In Asian cultures, seaweeds are food – and highly nutritious at that. On the Celtic fringes from Galicia to the Faroes, seaweeds have an honoured place in diets, though often seen as “famine food”. But go to Belfast and you’ll see eager buyers for the dillisk (palmaria palmata). Seaweeds absorb nutrients from the surrounding water, rather than their roots/holdfasts. They also absorb harmful so-called heavy metals, requiring careful site-selection for wild harvesting and farm deployments.
As a health intervention, seaweeds have a significant value in Scottish herbal medicine. We now refer to seaweeds as “nutraceuticals” with strong bio-activity. Their anti-oxidant capacity is due to living in a dynamic marine environment, where the leaves or fronds are necessarily self-healing to minimise oxidative stress from inevitable wounding. Probably their USP is iodine content – we are often iodine deficient which affects both metabolism and mental capacity. The University of Glasgow have done some fine work here. My own feeling is that the high levels of soluble fibre in most seaweeds helps our gut biome which, informed by the new discipline of psychobiotics, impacts on our mental health.
And there is more…fuel from seaweed for your car… fibre for your food wrappings, hydrocolloids for your custards ie food formulations (remember the alginates industry down Ayrshire way?)…livestock feed (ever eaten the sheeps from North Ronaldsay?)…hydrocolloids for your facecreams and toothpaste…fertiliser/soil enhancement for our soil…feed for our vertical hydroponic farming…
Some context is needed about the ownership of seaweeds.
There are three main zones on our coastal strips. The beach, the intertidal and the sub-tidal. The latter is defined as land out-with Mean Low Water Springs (MLWS). You won’t find this line on a map, so let’s just say it’s a line when the tide is quite low, in and around full and new moons. From that line out to the twelve mile limit (defined by International Law) the land, or rather seabed, is owned by the Crown and managed by the Crown Estate. All income generated from, say, wind farms or wild seaweed gathering goes to the Crown notionally, but in practice to the Scottish Government.
The ownership of the intertidal and beach can be individuals, estates, local authorities or the Crown. There is no logic, and often ownership is contested or unrecorded. Curiously, few have connected sea level rise (due to ice melt and thermal expansion) with land ownership. As the sea rises to engulf low lying land mass, who will own the new sub-tidal? A priori it will be the Crown.
All seaweed belongs to the owner of the land, so permission is needed before access and gathering is undertaken. Often, seaweed is ripped from the seabed by storms. In its floating state, anyone can catch it under the common law right to fish. Once the seaweed lands, it belongs to the landowner. In days past, beach-cast seaweed or “wrack” was highly valued – so much so that on Crail beach in Fife fights often broke out. These days, wrack is a valuable part of coastal ecosystems especially micro invertebrates.
Most seaweed gathered in Scotland is “wild” as opposed to farmed. The industry has a turnover of £4 million (2020) with possible uplift by 2040 to £71.2 million. The consenting and reporting protocols are onerous, so beware any of youse with ambitions to be a seaweed entrepreneur. And for the ordinary citizen who enjoys foraging, the regulations are uncertain to non-existent. You do need to be familiar with safety, seasonality and courtesy – learnt on workshops I and others run.
The nudge is on for businesses to transition away from wild gathering to farming. There is a consenting regime taking account of marine spatial planning imperatives, and the farmer needs a nursery onshore to seed lines with baby seaweeds. At present there is no commercial nursery in Scotland – babies are sourced from SAMS or Hortimare in the Netherlands. The lines are usually deployed horizontally between anchored buoys, with cordage of man-made materials such as the ghastly polypropylene. Some work is underway to experiment with natural fibres.
Seaweeds love fast flowing seawater rich in upwelling nutrients, and the growth is best where there is a significant wave height of one metre – knocking off all the inevitable fouling from other algae and wee beasties. The investment is high risk, being at sea and the harvest window small. Given that fresh seaweed is 90% water, processing into a dry state is laborious and expensive. The lack of nurseries and processing facility is a limiting factor.
There is, in Scotland, a massive well-spring of enthusiasm for mariculture focused on algae. It’s heartening. We do need to be viscerally aware, however, or warming seas and ocean acidification. The oceans absorb huge amounts of carbon from CO2 emissions, but this has the effect of lowering the pH – disastrous for plankton communities that are the very basis of life. No plankton, no humans – except, as Bill Hicks would jest, Keith Richards and a couple of cockroaches, Whilst seaweeds can mitigate ocean acidification, it’s a mere sticking plaster to a severed head.
These ARE serious times, with serious minds in and around Oban trying to figure it all out. Seaweeds act as a garland around our nation, offering beauty, food, medicine and, crucially, absorbing wave energy which would otherwise decimate our coastal zones.