How to deal with Mediterranean seaweed invasions?
Also: diversifying Maine’s monoculture, new projects for Philippines, Madagascar, PNG
Sargassum season is here, with reports of a 20% increase compared to last year. In Cancun, inclement weather has prevented the installment of barriers; as a consequence, some beaches have seen Sargassum deposits almost a meter high ahead of the Easter tourist peak.
Meanwhile in the Straits of Gibraltar, another much less talked about bio-invasion is taking place. It has been described as “extreme“, “brutal“, “explosive“ and “an absolute environmental crisis.“
Granted, the name Rugulopteryx okamurae is difficult to remember (I am hereby coining the word rugulo). But the consequences are dire: it already occupies 80% of the flat rocky bottoms surfaces of the Straits of Gibraltar, and a large part of the vertical surfaces. It is smothering the native fauna and flora and expanding quickly to other parts of the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
How to deal with such an onslaught? Tighten MPA management, reduce fertilizer runoff and stop pumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, I hear you say. The science would agree, but since Spanish government has shown little intention to act, valorizing the rugulo is the second-best option. Applications in compost and pharmaceuticals are being investigated, and small-scale cosmetics manufacturing has begun.
Plastics, shrimp feed, cosmeceuticals and biopesticides
The Mediterranean has other algal blooms that need valorizing, though. In Marseille, Eranova’s pilot factory already harvests 600 tons of Ulva blooms to create trash bags. It is now looking for an investment of €63 million to build a factory with a capacity to transform 60 000 tonnes of seaweed per year into 30 000 tonnes of plastics.
On the shores of Portugal, the Lemos Lab is researching new applications for its invasives: antifouling paints and shrimp feed from Sargassum and Asparagopsis, wound healing with Undaria, cosmeceuticals from Grateloupia turuturu, biopesticides and cosmetics from Asparagopsis, as well as orchard improvers and fish wrappers.
Fascinating research. Entrepreneurs are now needed to transfer this knowledge into commercial applications.
Diversifying Maine’s monoculture
Maine’s seaweed industry is, to a significant degree, a sugar kelp monoculture. That needs to change. Wildemania amplissima is a local species similar to nori (Porphyra yezoensis), used to wrap sushi.
This species grows to a similar size and in similar conditions to sugar kelp, but in spring and early summer instead of sugar kelp’s winter season, diversifying farms’ business without requiring big changes in practices or gear. A Sea Grant will allow Chris Neefus at the University of New Hampshire to determine how best to seed and grow this new species.
At the same time, Maine’s Springtide Innovations has received a 650 000$ USDA grant to refine its nursery protocols for nori and dulse, with the aim of developing a turnkey solution to export globally. The company is also involved in research on farm design, remote sensing, and urchin IMTA.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Nuzhdin Research Laboratory has received a brand-new 6000 square feet of lab space to expand its research on mussels and seaweed.
New projects for Philippines, Madagascar, PNG
After super typhoon Rai devastated parts of the Philippines, Conservation International Ventures invests $500,000 to enable Coast4C to rebuild their processing and storage warehouses and distribute essential materials needed to restart farming operations. CI Ventures previously invested in plastics manufacturer Sway.
Madagascar is suffering a terrible food crisis because of drought and tropical storms, soon to be compounded by wheat deficits because of the war in Ukraine. The $6.3 million NOSY MANGA partnership between USAID and Madagascar will allow Ocean Farmers and Indian Ocean Trepang to alleviate hunger and reduce pressure on marine resources through seaweed and sea cucumber aquaculture.
In 2009, Papua New Guinea established a moratorium on sea cucumber fishing to allow depleted stocks to recover. Kappaphycus cultivation was proposed as an alternative. While initial growth trials were promising, the activity collapsed when the moratorium was lifted in 2017, and farmers abandoned seaweed farming to fish for the highly lucrative sea cucumber. This was short-lived as the recovered bêche-de-mer was fished out quickly and the moratorium was reintroduced. Farmers are now realizing the significance of seaweed, and Kappaphycus seaweed farming is gaining momentum.
Even more blue finance
I’d only just published my post on the growth in European blue finance, or The Fish Site profiled two more funds that explicitly mention seaweed as part of their investment strategy. Finance Earth’s Blue Impact Fund is looking for £50-75 million, while Hatch intend to grow about 20 regenerative and sustainable aquaculture businesses over the next 10 years. And there’s also Seventure Partners Blue Forward Fund, which has raised €30m from a targeted €130m so far, and is already deploying capital in seaweed aquaculture.
Phyconomy started out tracking both macro- and microalgae. Seaweed quickly took over, but in that early period, Brilliant Planet (previously Susewi) struck me as one of the trailblazers in the microalgae space, with an ambition that went beyond their competitors.
Their $12M Series A round with high-profile investors like Hatch and S2G Ventures is a hopeful signal for microalgae - in many ways an industry at a similar stage as its macro sibling.
And finally, returning to the topic of bio-invasions one last time, here’s a quote from an article on Prof. Kruger-Hadfield’s work investigating how the global success of a species of Gracilaria has torn up its life cycle:
“You may not think much about seaweed sex, but the National Science Foundation has.”
Can’t get it out of my head now!