The Wonder Weeds in the Sea

  Gabriella D'Cruz, Yogendra Anand |     May 29, 2023

Hi! Do you guys know what a seaweed is? It’s like the spinach of the sea. You might have eaten it in a roll of sushi or a bowl of green salad or a soup. But most likely, you wouldn’t have tasted it at all. That’s because in India, we don't have a popular tradition of seaweeds. But that's about to change—I believe as the founder of a seaweed food company called The Good Ocean.

My company hand-harvests local seaweed from different parts of Goa’s coastline and, cleans and dries it before selling it to chefs and restaurants. I also consult food and beauty companies that wish to include seaweed in their product range. I, myself, dive in the tidepools to gather seaweeds during low tide days. I wear my fins and mask, and swim around to find the weeds I need. Then I cut them at a certain height, using a pair of scissors, and ensure to not pull the entire weed out from the rock. By doing this, I allow the rest of the plant to grow naturally and take only what I need. When I'm done, I put the leaves in a net bag and swim back to the shore. If the tide is very low, unlike on a full moon or a new moon day, I pluck the weeds directly by walking up to the rocks where they are spreading.

Prior to running this start-up, I spent many years studying the health and environmental benefits of seaweed and how they are among the most sustainable foods on earth. Seaweeds or marine algae are damn nutritious with fiber, proteins, and vitamins—like A, B1, B12—plus other good things—like, omega 3 fatty acids, niacin, folic acid, and iodine. These minerals help our brain and nervous system, and also keep us fit and fine.

Environmentally speaking, seaweeds have one of the lowest carbon footprints on our planet! (Find out what’s ‘carbon footprint’ in case you’re wondering.) That’s because unlike land plants which require artificial fertilizers, all seaweeds really need to survive is sunlight and seawater. That’s enough for them to grow thrice as fast as any other terrestrial plant. Their quick growth has formed dense marine forests in oceans across the world, including both cold and warm waters. These forests play a very vital role in absorbing carbon dioxide, sequestering greenhouse gases (GHG), and de-acidifying oceans. High seaweed density along coastlines, provide a substantial buffer against storms and cyclones.

That’s why it’s really important for seaweeds to exist in abundance. For many oceanic creatures, they are a base food, and important breeding and feeding ground for their offspring. The Humpback whale, one of the largest creatures in the world, feeds on lots of seaweed apart from fish and krill. Turtles, dolphins, and even our local fish stock get their energy from these sea algae. Thus, seaweeds must be really, really protected and their importance be celebrated.

In fact, seaweeds are quite relished in East Asian cuisines, especially, of China, Japan, and Korea. The Koreans prepare a delicious seaweed soup called miyeok-guk, a traditional dish, on their every birthday! Their women who have recently delivered babies are also served seaweed to regain their strength. Normally, the weeds are dried and stored, which lets them last upto 2–3 years, and soaked in water just before they are eaten. The rehydrated weeds are then put into salads, soups, burgers, and chips.

At this point you’d be wondering what Indian seaweeds taste like and where you can have some. In India, we have over 800 species of sea algae, including green seaweeds like ulva (sea lettuce), brown seaweeds like Sargassum, and red seaweeds like Gracilaria. Indian seaweeds have different flavours and textures and, if you live by the sea, you can also gather some between the months of November to March. Coastal Tamil Nadu has multiple harvesting communities, especially of women, who farm and sell seaweeds to the hydrocolloid and bio-fertilizer industries in the region. They use seaweed extracts to make many eatable and daily care items, like ice-creams, jams, jellies, toothpastes, and other products that require non-bovine gelatine. In fact, seaweeds have a lot of commercial uses in industries like, food, animal feed, fertilizer, pharmaceutical, bio-plastic, and clothing.

Thus, the production of seaweeds should be promoted. They must be farmed separately so that their natural forests are conserved. Not only that, seaweeds are also ‘low carbon foods,’ i.e. they do not emit much carbon dioxide or GHGs during their farming. Shrimps, for example, are high carbon foods. That’s because they are cultivated in farms that were set-up by cutting down mangrove forests. (Find out if you don't know yet the importance of mangrooves.) Shrimps are also fed wild fish, which is carbon-intense. Seaweeds, on the other hand, do not require any land to grow and can reproduce along every coastline, which reduces the cost of transporting them. Thus, seaweeds are clearly low on carbon.

The Indian Government has recognized their value and allocated roughly Rs 600 crore under the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana to start seaweed farming across the country. This is a very positive development as currently, there are no regulations on its farming in India. It seems that anyone, anywhere can clear seaweeds, overharvest, and endanger them. This has already been done by a few large companies, though they have also generated some coastal income through contractual farming. However, it is the local ecology and wild seaweeds which have been at stake throughout. Apart from seaweed farming, alternate ways of their production must also be encouraged. Some of the latest methods involve cultivating baby seaweeds in labs and putting their saplings out on rafts or long lines in the ocean. Then, allowing them to grow into full adults until they are harvested later. At the time of harvesting, their plucking should be done very carefully. Training programs should be offered to marine farmers to harvest their crops in the right way, i.e. sustainably.

Now, the next time you hear about seaweeds or find them in your food, try to imagine how our oceans be without them and, therefore, why these wonder weeds should never be weeded out!

Photo caption: Myself harvesting Sargassum in Goa (Image credits: Rebecca D’Costa)

About the Author

A biodiversity conservationist, an under-30 entrepreneur, and founder of 'The Good Ocean', an upcoming Goa-based start-up.

Illustrator, Art & Design, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

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