Seaweed: Sea of opportunities

Neetu Prasad *

Weeds are, plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one that grows where it is not wanted and often grows or spreads fast or takes the place of desired plants. So, What comes to your mind when you hear the word Seaweed?

For most of us they are marine versions of water hyacinth clogging Indian ponds posing obstruction to navigation. Little is known about the tremendous economic potential of this family of marine algae.

Seaweed has been gaining global recognition as a wonder plant of the ocean. It supports marine biodiversity by acting as breeding and feeding grounds. It absorbs carbon, de-acidifies the ocean and soaks up excess nutrients that could cause harmful algae blooms. It can also be a renewable resource for coastal communities, offering them a more stable income compared to fluctuating fisheries markets that are increasingly affected by climate change.

It is anticipated that one tonne of seaweed may absorb 120 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2), two kilograms of Nitrogen, (N) and two and a half kilograms of Phosphorus (P). Further, it required practically zero fresh water.

Thus, it can be a huge force multiplier for BLUE ECONOMY and Green Agricultural practices. Owing to its innate properties, seaweed is valued as a natural ingredient in food, medicines, fertilizers, cosmetics, biomaterials, etc. and the current global market is of 17 billion dollars.

Historical background: - Seaweed was first consumed in Japan at least 1500 years ago according to early written records. Until the middle ages, there was only wild seaweed, which limited it as a food source. During the Tokugawa era (1600-1800 AD), the seaweed cultivation was born when the fishermen built an offshore fence and started a fish farm to supply the king fresh fish everyday. They also found that seaweed preferred growing on this fence.

In India, the cultivation of seaweed started under the aegis of the Centre for salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI) which brought Kappaphycus alvarezil to India from the Philippines for experimental purposes during the 1980s. It didn’t take long for the seaweed to jump from the experimental farms to commercial ones.

With the help of CSMCRI, Pepsico started commercial farming of seaweed in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu in the early 2000. Kappaphycus alvarezil is an important source of carrageenans which are used in a variety of foods, such as a stabilising agent in dairy products. Industrial products like chocolates, ice creams, packaged food, toothpaste and even medicines, to name a few, utilize this jelly-like agent.

It gave the locals of Tamil Nadu a new farm of employment, especially women. In 2008, Pepsi co-exited the business. An ex-Pepsi co-employee, Abhiram Seth, took over the business by setting up a company called Aquagri. Since then, numerous sea weed companies and start-ups have grown to explore the commercial usages of seaweed.

Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojna (PMMSY) was launched by Hon. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modiji, in 2020 which is not only meant for strengthening the infrastructure and value chain in the fisheries sector but also became a cornerstone of brand new activities unravelled in the Indian Fisheries segment.

PMMSY envisages that artificial reefs, sea ranching along with Seaweed are going to bring a sustainable, climate resilient and profitable model which will not only help in improving the fishermen’s income, provide livelihood to coastal women but also, be a perfect way to sustainably manage our fish stocks.

India is endowed with a long coast line of more than 8000 km and traditionally Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Odisha and Maharashtra have been blessed with various species of naturally growing Seaweed. Rich Seaweed beds occur around Mumbai, Ratnagiri, Goa, Karwar, Uarkala Vizhinjam, Pulikat, Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Chilika in Odisha.

Present Scenorio: Under PMMSY, projects with a total cost of Rs. 193.80 crores with a central share of Rs. 99 crores were approved for the cultivation of seaweed and related activities. Funds are allotted to coastal states, UTs and research institutions for establishment of 46,095 rafts, 65,330 mono-lines and development of seaweed park in Tamil Nadu worth 127.7 crores.

This seaweed park aims to provide an enabling ecosystem for researchers, entrepreneurs, startups and SHC women. The foundation stone was laid last year by the Hon’ble Union Minister Shri Parshottam Rupala Ji and the work is going at a brisk pace.

Future Perfect:

As a wonder plant of the sea, Seaweed can grow at an exponential rate, ready for harvesting in 45 to 60 days. The Department of Fisheries aims to produce around 11 lakh tons of seaweed annually through wild catch and aquaculture. With increased awareness, the domestic demand for seaweed has grown multifold and we are importing almost 70% of our requirements.

Significant steps need to be taken to reverse this trend, attain self-sufficiency and become a net exporter. Towards this end the following can be done;

o Achieve strong collaborations between the states, research institutes (CMFRI, CSMCRI, NIOT) and the Private enterprises/ startups.

o Detailed mapping and identification of potential zones/ areas for seaweed cultivation can be taken up by the coastal states which are clear of fishing zones, tourism activities and trade routes.

o Formulation of water leasing policy for organized growth and better regulation by the States is important.

o Participation of women SHG groups through the convergence of the National Rural Livelihood Mission scheme and upgrading their skills.

o Availability of seed is the biggest issue. Hence development and scaling up of high yielding seed materials by R&D institutes to be taken up with funding from their own source and PMMSY.

o Private sector and entrepreneurs take up large scale production under schemes (PMMSY, FIDF) and own resources.

o Government should take policy measures to allow import of high yielding planting materials by the private sector. Presently there are some technical problems that exist in the export and import of seaweed.

o Research institutes should collaborate with Private partners to grow high yielding planting materials of different species of seaweed so dependence upon any specific species can be overcome. Similarly, post-harvest technologies and advanced technology of cultivation are to be adopted.

o To establish a proper integrated eco-system, more seaweed parks may be approved under PMMSY in all the coastal states on lines similar to Tamil Nadu seaweed park.

o Seed Banks of seaweed may be created at a scale all along the coastline.

Rightly recognizing its potential to transform the way farming is done, the honorable Prime Minister has exhorted Self Help Group women and farmers to take up cultivation of seaweed for its pharmaceutical nutritional and other values. Philosopher Goethe said “Whatever you do, or dream you can do, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”. Our attempt to make India a world leader in seaweed production may be a dream now, but with bold measures and initiatives under the honorable Prime Minister’s powerful leadership, these beginnings may just bring the magical transformation.

* Neetu Prasad wrote this article for PIB which was published at The Sangai Express
The writer is Joint Secretary (Marine Fisheries), Department of Fisheries, MoFAHD, GoI
This article was webcasted on February 02 2024.

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