GlobalSeaweedSTAR: Balancing Economic Profitability with Environment

The seaweed farming industry must balance economic profitability with environment, human, and organism health, say international scientists.


A team of 37 seaweed scientists from 30 institutions and 18 countries has warned that the multi-billion-dollar seaweed farming industry must balance economic profitability with environmental, human, and organism health to ensure its long-term survival. They have just published an international policy brief, issuing a series of recommendations to improve the resilience and sustainability of the industry. The GlobalSeaweedSTAR program was funded by UK Research and Innovation and the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies.

The policy brief has outlined eight recommendations, ranging from developing new international policies and regulations to establishing a series of regional seaweed research networks to ensure policy improvements are aligned across the industry.

The need for these policy improvements carries urgency because seaweed cultivation is the most rapidly expanding sector in aquaculture production. It accounts for more than 50 per cent of total global marine production, equating to around 34.7 million tons. Rapid growth in the past 50 years means the industry reached a value of USD $14.7 billion in 2019. The industry supports the livelihoods of over 6 million small-scale farmers and processors, many of whom are women, in predominantly low and middle-income countries.

Seaweed cultivation is now receiving increased interest from higher income countries as a nature-based solution to economic development, contributing greatly to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030). There is also a growing commercial demand for higher value seaweed-derived products, such as hydrocolloids and for food ingredients, medical treatments, and as a laboratory medium for COVID-19 testing.

The rapid expansion of the industry coincides with increasing pressures from warming seas caused by climate change plus an over-reliance on certain species, which has seen the industry ravaged by pests and diseases.

“Coastal communities in low to middle income countries have come to rely on seaweed farming for their livelihoods,” said the policy brief’s lead author and GlobalSeaweedSTAR program leader Prof Elizabeth Cottier-Cook, of the Scottish Association for Marine Science. “We are already seeing the detrimental impacts of climate change and a lack of biosecurity protocols on this industry. Warming seas have made coastal waters uninhabitable for some species, while an over-reliance on a few species of seaweed and the widespread importing of non-native stock has allowed pests and disease to spread through entire farms.

“Our policy brief recognizes the importance and the potential of this industry in helping to alleviate poverty in developing nations and in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, improvements in biosecurity, pathogen identification and concomitant reporting systems, the establishment of seed-banks and nurseries to reduce the dependence on imports, and the conservation of genetic diversity in wild stocks are urgently required if the industry is to prosper.

“These challenges must be addressed in combination with the establishment of incentives, policies and capacity building initiatives, which protect livelihoods, are gender-responsive, and increase the resilience, particularly of the small-scale farmers and processors and the wider environment, to the impacts of climate change and the globalization of the industry.”


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