by Julie Robinson
At a time when both fish and fishers face an uncertain future in my home country, Belize, I see hope. And it comes in the form of seaweed.
Let me explain.
As a child, I would hear the shouts of street vendors every day as they pushed their carts through the hot, busy streets of Belize City yelling “SEAWEED! GET YOUR ICE COLD SEAWEED!” It is a sweet, milky drink that’s made of red algae locally known as “seaweed” and it is believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Fishers have traditionally harvested seaweed while on their fishing trips as supplemental income to their traditional catch of conch, lobster and fish. However, the fish are getting smaller, the conch harder to find and the lobsters have moved to deeper waters.
But the seaweed remains. Fishers are struggling to make a living and seaweed is coming to the rescue!
Belize’s fisheries, like so many around the world, are in decline. The combined impacts of increased fishing pressure, coastal development and invasive species have pushed Belizean fisheries to the precipice of overexploitation, but there is still hope for this little Caribbean country.
And that hope is seaweed. Seaweed is a part of the solution for fishers and fish alike.
Fifteen years ago I was the reserve manager for two of Belize’s World Heritage Sites, Halfmoon Caye Natural Monument and Blue Hole Natural Monument, both located out on Lighthouse Reef Atoll. I often found myself at the opposite end of the table, (or boat, depending on where we were) from fishers.
I was trying to convince them that the fishery was in decline and we were in trouble. I wanted them to respect the fisheries regulations and the marine protected areas. They fought back. They said I was lying and stormed away and I found myself alone at the table.
However, in 2011 I found myself sitting at the table with them again. This time at the same end of the table! The tone had changed and it was much more sombre. Over the years, I had gained their trust and they gained my respect and appreciation. We all agreed that Belize’s fishery was in trouble and that something needed to change.
The problem is simple. There are fewer fish in the sea and more people to feed. We need innovative solutions to combat the problem.
One such solution came from working with a small fishing cooperative in the picturesque coastal village of Placencia where seaweed has been harvested from the wild and used in the milky seaweed shake for decades.
Forty years ago, Mr. Villamar Godfrey, a respected fisherman in Placencia was one of the first to economically benefit from the harvesting of seaweed from the wild and exporting the dried product to the US.
Today, I am working with his son, “Japs”; we’re in 4 feet of clear warm water harvesting and replanting seaweed. I take a bite of the fresh seaweed off the lines, salty and crunchy, and think of the endless possibilities and uses for this alga. We are working on something that fuels a paradigm shift that will lead to the development of a brand new sector for Belize. Japs and his team have transformed the fishing cooperative and shifted its focus from catching fish to establishing sustainable seaweed farms.
Today, seaweed uses have expanded and include:
- Healthy seaweed shakes
- Thickener used in the preparation of food
- Skin therapy and health and spa treatments
- Cosmetic products including soaps, perfumes, and other beauty products
- Animal and fish feed
- Fertilizers and soil conditioners.
The potential for developing seaweed farming into a large-scale industry that is lucrative for coastal fishing communities, while providing an alternative income is immense! The global demand keeps growing and Belize has an opportunity to create a niche market for sustainable seaweed. In 2008, the global industry was growing at a rate of 8% per annum and had a value of US$ 270 million and new applications for seaweed are increasing the worldwide demand.
Currently the Placencia cooperative cannot meet the demand for the international market and requires financing to increase its capacity to take this venture from local and small scale, to large scale exportation of seaweed products. This is not an obstacle! It is an opportunity!
In addition to the economic benefit, the seaweed farms enhance the sustainability of the fishery by providing protection for critical nursery habitats for commercially important species. Fishers reduce their pressure on wild fisheries, improve their economic standing and create a whole new industry for a small Caribbean country to keep its economy growing. It is that rare win-win situation.
We are at the cusp of something great. It has been a long and bumpy road, but today the Government, fishing industry, communities, investors and the conservation community can work together to build a profitable and sustainable industry; one that will create jobs, improve livelihoods, and enhance the fishing industry in Belize.
Could seaweed be for Belize what the coffee bean is for Costa Rica? It’s not a far-fetched idea. We are a small country with a small population and low GDP. A small investment in sustainable seaweed farming in our little country can provide a high return on investment for Belize. Join me for a glass of ice cold sustainable seaweed!
Julie Robinson is a Fisheries & Marine Specialist for The Nature Conservancy. Julie has been working in the field of marine research for the past nineteen years. She has extensive field experience throughout Belize and has worked on reef health and sustainable fisheries whilst establishing monitoring schemes for species of commercial interest. Today Julie leads the Fisheries Management Strategy for the Mesoamerican Reef.
Design and build your home from shipping container construction. Using The Illustrated Construction Guide And The Included Cad Software Will Teach You How To Design And Build Your Own Shipping Container Homes. There is a Hot Worldwide Market For Green Construction And Sustainable Housing. Click Here!
Sustainable Seaweed Culture
Sustainable Seaweed Culture, compliments Julie Robinson, The Nature Conservancy