Seaweed is used for a wide range of products ranging from snacks, toothpastes, skin care products and cosmetics, to industrial products, including adhesives, dyes and gels.
The seaweed industry is undergoing a rapid global expansion and currently accounts for 49 percent of the total global mariculture production. Exponential growth has meant that the value of the industry reached US$6.4 billion in 2014, exceeding that of the world’s lemons and limes.
"The seaweed industry in Asia has been growing rapidly for the best part of 60 years, but Europe has only recently woken up to the economic potential of seaweed cultivation. Interest in the West has been sparked by the wide range of seaweed applications, from health foods through to fuel, that can be produced in a sustainable way and has little environmental impact,” Vladimir Smakhtin, director, UNU-INWEH said.
The industry has provided jobs in developing and emerging economies, while also being an alternative to more destructive methods like dynamite fishing. China produces over half of the global total of seaweed (12.8 million tonnes), while Indonesia is responsible for 27 percent, or 6.5 million tonnes. Other major producers include the Republic of Korea and the Philippines.
However, the rapidly expanding industry has experienced unforeseen ecological and societal consequences. In between 2011-2013, estimated losses of US$ 310 million occurred in the Philippines when a valued seaweed species were victim to a bacterial infection that caused whitening of the branches.
UNU-INWEH stressed that genetic diversity was important, citing the above disaster as well as relevant case studies involved in banana and shrimp farming.
Commercially edible bananas are seedless and thus required to be produced clonally, resulting in genetically identical monocultures, making them vulnerable. A fungal infection wiped out the ‘Gros Michel’ crop, while a variation of the fungus threatens the world’s current ‘Cavendish’ crop.
In the shrimp farming industry, early mortality syndrome (EMS) caused multi-billion dollar losses in single production years in specific countries such as Thailand following its emergence in 2010.
The UNU-INWEH advised the seaweed industry to guard against non-indigenous pests and pathogens, to promote genetic diversity of seaweed stocks and to raise awareness of recommended farm management practices (such as spacing cultivation nets apart, making the crop less vulnerable to disease transfer and natural disasters).