Africa, often associated with poverty and deprivation, has access to a huge natural resource, which, if properly developed and exploited, could dramatically change the lives of its coastal peoples. This has been shown spectacularly in Tanzania where scientific advice and know-how have provided coastal communities with substantial revenue for food, healthcare and education. Seaweed is available in huge quantities and incredible diversity on the African coast but because of a lack of access to information on location, type and potential commercial usage, the full potential of this natural resource is left largely untapped, a situation which is mirrored in remote communities in Europe, including areas like the west of Ireland.
This is now about to change however, with the commencement of a major three-year EU-funded project, headed by the Martin Ryan Institute at NUI, Galway to compile a definitive database of commercially important seaweeds from the EU and Africa. For the first time, this information will be easily accessible internationally via both the Internet and a specially produced information pack including a CD-ROM version of the database which will be distributed free of charge to potential users of the information.
The Department of Botany, NUI, Galway AlgaeBase team will host the first meeting of the project partners in NUI, Galway from the 14 -17 January organised by Eilís Nic Dhonncha and Professor Michael Guiry. Participating countries include Kenya, South Africa and Namibia from Africa; and Ireland, Portugal and Sweden from the EU. The AlgaeBase team point out that a major foreign policy aim of the EU is to foster the sustainable economic and social development of developing countries. The SeaweedAfrica part of AlgaeBase will provide information on resource distribution, uses and potential uses, current resource yields, ecology, aquaculture and harvesting.
"The innovative features of this database are twofold" explains Ms. Nic Dhonncha. "Initially, via the internet, it will provide biological information on the economically-important seaweeds to the initiators of community-based development projects to help them to choose the species upon which they should concentrate and the technical information to aid them in choosing strategies and methods that have been successful elsewhere. The second major objective is to provide the relevant information to policy makers in the form of an easy-to-access tool to allow them to establish that development taking place is carried out in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable manner."
Despite its burgeoning coastline and maritime populations, Africa has not seen major developments of a seaweed industry except in Tanzania, South Africa, and, more recently, Mozambique. There is a lack of local knowledge of seaweeds, despite the incredible biodiversity, which is particularly high on the east coast. In some areas, such as Namibia and the west coast of South Africa, upwelling of cold water shows enormous potential for maricultural development if the right algae and management techniques can be found. It is intended that SeaweedAfrica will go a long way towards achieving that.
The current first-sale annual value of the Irish seaweed industry is about Euro 8.8 million and the industry employs nearly 700 people on either a full-time or seasonal basis in remote rural areas of the west coast, primarily within the Gaeltacht. Compared to the world seaweed production - in excess of 7.5 million tonnes in an industry worth US $4 billion - the Irish industry is small, processing 45,000 tonnes annually. However, the seemingly small size of the industry masks the huge socio-economic impacts that it has on rural coastal communities with few other sustainable sources of income.
Seaweed and its extracts are used extensively in industries such as agriculture, soap, skin care and snack food and food ingredients. Selected species are also being increasingly used in the biotechnological and pharmaceutical industries. Professor Michael Guiry, Director of NUI Galway s Martin Ryan Institute, the leading academic marine research institution in Ireland, has been involved in seaweed research for many years and is recognised as a world expert in this area.
Information from: Máire Mhic Uidhir, Press Officer, NUI, Galway. Tel. 091 750418