Why seaweed is a real ocean superstar

Article by Smiley News

Did you know seaweed plays a crucial role in marine ecosystems?

It’s one of the world’s great unsung heroes, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. The UK, with over 650 species of seaweed, is home to a diverse range of species.

That’s why, from 23-31 July, the Marine Conservation Society and the Natural History Museum will be asking people across the UK to head to the coast and spot seaweed as part of community science project: Big Seaweed Search Week.

The campaign asks beachgoers to search for, and record, 14 of the most common seaweed species. This information helps the organisations to map the distribution of specific species and collect long-term data that enables them to determine, as a result of seaweeds found, the impact of environmental changes in the ocean.

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Amy Pilsbury, Citizen Science Lead at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “Studying seaweeds can tell us a lot about wider ocean and environmental conditions and the information supports real scientific research.

“Seaweed is a real ocean superstar, helping to buffer the effects of climate change, absorbing and storing carbon and protecting our coasts from waves and storm damage. The more data we gather with our Big Seaweed Searchers, the more knowledge and influence we have to protect our ocean, and seaweeds, for the future.”

So, why is seaweed so vital?

As well as providing habitats for other species, seaweed plays a major part in marine food chains and are a rich source of nutrients for animals such as crabs and sea urchins.

Seaweed plays a critical role in combating the climate crisis. These fast-growing algae produce oxygen – more than land plants – with phytoplankton (like seaweed) providing at least half of the oxygen we breathe. Seaweed absorbs carbon more effectively than trees, storing an estimated 175 million tonnes each year – equal to 10% of the world’s car emissions.

However, populations of kelp – large brown seaweeds that are a vital ‘blue carbon’ store – are reported to be declining around the world, limiting ocean ecosystems’ abilities to absorb carbon and combat the climate crisis.

Data gathered by volunteers at the Big Seaweed Search helps build a picture of what our shores are like, how they’re changing and informs scientists and decision-makers how best to protect them.

It’s easy to get involved in Big Seaweed Search Week, and anyone can take part. Training videos and downloadable resources are available, including a guide which helps beachgoers to identify the seaweed species they’re likely to spot and explains what they need to do.

Inspired to act?

GET INVOLVED: To get involved simply, register to take part and download your guide and recording form at bigseaweedsearch.org.

You then need to choose your 5 metres of coastline to survey, fill in your survey form, take LOTS of clear, close-up photographs for your survey to be accepted – and submit it through bigseaweedsearch.org.

SUPPORT: You can visit the Marine Conservation Society to find out about volunteering opportunities.

How seaweed is changing the world

As climate change continues to exacerbate ecological challenges and considerably decreases the areas of agricultural land available, the global demand for nutrients will increase drastically. More and more, we will look to the oceans for our very survival.

Take seaweed, for example. For centuries humans have consumed seaweed in one form or another. Seaweeds are fast-growing algae with many beneficial uses to both marine life and humans. Through the process of photosynthesis, seaweeds convert sunlight into energy and take up nutrients and carbon dioxide from the oceans. While rain forests only produce 28 percent of the oxygen we breathe, seaweed, kelp, phytoplankton, and algae plankton produce 70% of the oxygen we breathe.

Would you believe that seaweed is actually the ancestor of everything that grows on planet earth? Paleontologists recently announced the discovery of a billion-year-old seaweed fossil in northern China. Some scientists firmly believe that all the trees and plants we have today originated from seaweeds.

With resources on our planet steadily decreasing, it’s no surprise then that humans have turned to seaweed for ongoing food and medicinal help.

Seaweed can be found in many everyday products. From cosmetics to medicine, pet food, and even toothpaste. Recently they’re also used in biodegradable packaging, textiles, and even straws.

In 2019, the global seaweed business was estimated to be worth US$13.33 billion, with projections of that number reaching US$23.04 billion by 2027. Mostly farmed in Asia, inland seaweed farming outside of Asia has taken off in recent years.

Sustainable seaweed farming

The food industry’s interest in sustainable additives and food security grows each day, driven by a hungry population who are becoming increasingly concerned about the environment and the negative consequences of consumerism.

Seaweed farming began around 1670 in Japan and is now practiced all over the world.

While China, Indonesia, and the Philippines still produce most of the edible seaweed products on the market, seaweed farms are popping up all over the globe.

One such operation, AlgaPlus has a series of ponds and tanks in Northern Portugal where they cultivate seaweed in a much more controlled environment than that of traditional ocean seaweed farms. Their production includes the only European commercial-scale hatchery of the species Porphyra spp., also known as Atlantic nori.

Seawater from a coastal lagoon flows into the fish ponds at AlgaPlus, where it’s pumped through a filtration system into tanks that grow the seaweed. The advantage of this method of farming is additives or fertilizers are not needed, as the seaweed is nourished by the water from the fish in their ponds, making it a highly sustainable operation.

In another part of the world, seaweed farming is proving to be a very important resource for women. Tanzania is an East African country and home to the Serengeti National Park. It might surprise you to know that seaweed farming is considered the third biggest contributor of foreign currency to the country, where 90 percent of seaweed farmers are women. In their shallow-water farms, they wait 45 days for their seaweeds to grow, then pick, dry, and package their seaweeds to be exported to countries like China, Korea, and Vietnam. But due to climate change, farmer numbers have dwindled over the past few decades.

At one point there were over 450 seaweed farmers in Tanzania. Now there are only about 150. But thanks to a program run by The Nature Conservancy, farmers are now being educated about how to improve their farming operations in the hopes of increasing the number of farmers in the region.

Common seaweed strains for consumption

While mainly consumed in Asian countries, seaweed products are starting to enjoy popularity around the world. Global seaweed aquaculture production now occupies about 20 percent of the total world marine aquaculture production by weight. Seaweed aquaculture production is dominated by relatively few species namely the brown kelps and the red seaweeds.

Different seaweeds / kelp

Pyropia is a genus of red alga found around the world in intertidal zones and shallow water and commonly used to make “nori” – a dried edible seaweed used in Japanese cuisine and often used to wrap rolls of sushi or onigiri. It has the highest commercial value per unit mass at $523 per wet metric ton. (In case you are wondering why nori is green but made from red alga, when added to boiling water (100 degrees C) the other pigments in the seaweed melt and dissolve leaving behind the bright green chlorophyll).

Kelps are large brown algae seaweeds that grow in underwater forests in shallow oceans. Along the Norwegian coast, these forests cover 5800 km2, and they support large numbers of marine animals. Kelp fetches $141 per wet ton.

Gracilaria (red algae) are found in warm waters throughout the world, though they also occur seasonally in temperate waters and cannot tolerate temperatures below 10 degrees C. Gracilaria fetches $273 per wet ton.

Kappaphycus is a genus of red algae with species distributed in the waters of East Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Micronesia, and Hainan Island. Kappaphycus fetches $172 per wet ton.

Sargassum is a genus of large brown seaweed that floats in island-like masses, never attaching to the seafloor. They can be found in shallow waters and coral reefs.  Sargassum fetches $460 per wet ton.

Read our blog: Why we need to tackle our sargassum issue

How seaweed farming can help combat climate change

Considered a carbon-negative crop, seaweed also has a high potential for climate change mitigation. Furthermore, seaweeds can grow extremely quickly, about thirty times faster than land-based plants. Indeed, nothing on earth sequesters carbon faster than giant kelp which can grow up to 60 meters in length and as fast as 50 cm per day under the right conditions.

The University of the South Pacific published an analysis as early as 2012 that revealed exactly how seaweed farming could help to combat climate change. Their analysis revealed that if 9% of the ocean were to be covered in seaweed farms, the farmed seaweed could produce 12 gigatonnes per year of bio digested methane. This methane could be burned as a substitute for natural gas. Even at smaller scales, seaweed farming has the potential to substantially lower atmospheric CO₂.

Seaweed in the food chain

Seaweed isn’t just eaten in sushi bars. Many of the foods we consume every day employ thickening agents to make them more palatable and easier to scoop. Several strains of red algae provide natural gels that bind food such as Agars, Alginates, and Carrageenans. Some of the products include desserts, chewing gum, jellies, jams, dairy products, salad dressings, candies, ice creams, jellies, beers, and wines.

Seaweed for the garden

Seaweed can also be applied whole to garden soil. You can also buy seaweed that is dried and ground for fertilizer.  Or you can buy seaweed that is processed and made into seaweed extract, which is then diluted for use. Seaweed fertilizer adds trace elements as well as plant nutrients like potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus to the soil.

Furthermore, whole or dried seaweed also adds organic matter to the garden. Considering how toxic regular commercial fertilizers are for the delicate ocean ecosystems, seaweed fertilizers are a much safer option.

Seaweed for building houses

Probably the best use being given to seaweed in the Caribbean is in building houses. Sargassum bricks are made with the same technique as adobe bricks. The use of this seaweed can reduce the total cost of building homes by up to 50%, making it perfect for low-income families or sustainable buildings.

Other uses for seaweed

Uses for seaweed are virtually endless. They are used to make cardboard, paper, and even textiles. Seaweed is also used in pharmaceuticals as binders, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and for creating molds. Even the dental industry uses them in molding preparations. Hair strengthening treatments, as well as makeup, moisturizing creams and sunscreens are some of the products that are being produced with seaweed.

Read our blog: is your sunscreen harming the ocean?

Furthermore, methane emissions could be cut by 90 percent if livestock were fed on seaweed-based foodstuffs, rather than soy. It would also improve digestion whilst boosting the animals’ immune systems, thereby reducing the need for antibiotics.

Seaweed as a first choice

Not only does seaweed pose a solution to food scarcity and climate change, but it’s helping us to create biodegradable products. Next time you’re out shopping, reach for the products made from seaweed first. You’ll be doing the environment a ton of good

Why We Must Tackle Our Sargassum Issue

Over the past number of years, beaches and shores have been covered in sargassum. While this seaweed has some great environmental benefits and is crucial to supporting marine life, there are many issues when it washes up on shores. When on land, this seaweed can threaten both marine life and human life. Not to mention, these large blooms have the ability to discourage visitors and impact the tourism industry. Read on to find out more about sargassum and how we can use data monitoring to solve this prevalent issue.

What is Sargassum?

Sargassum is a type of seaweed that is free-floating. The ocean’s current causes it to travel in the water. Generally, people associate sargassum with being bad and do not want it in their waters. In actual fact, it allows coral reef ecosystems to thrive since it establishes a rich biological habitat. Sargassum is used as feeding grounds, shelter, and nurseries by more than 250 different kinds of fish. Given that, it is of huge importance to marine life.

What is causing an overflow of Sargassum?

Sargassum has been washing up on shores for years, affecting nearby sea life, spoiling beaches, and creating health implications for fishers, boaters, and beach visitors. Scientists traced the source of the sargassum arrival to a new accumulation zone. This zone spanned 5,500 miles, going all the way from Brazil to the coast of West Africa. It is known as the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt and contains approximately 200 million tonnes of seaweed, as reported in 2018. Before 2010, it was not an issue on anyone’s radar. The ocean currents bring it to the Caribbean, where local current patterns and wind affect where and when it lands on the beaches here.

Recently, satellite observations found an unprecedented belt of sargassum stretching all the way from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, experts are suggesting it is most likely here to stay. The floats of sargassum generally cover thousands of square miles and go incredibly deep into the ocean. So, what is causing this overflow of sargassum? The explosion of sargassum in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Oceans is thought to signify a new normal, according to US scientists. The  factors driving  the  growth of  sargassum  are thought to be fertilizer use and deforestation. As a result of this, the seaweed has covered beaches, making them an environmental issue that has implications for marine life and human health.

Issues with Sargassum?

Sargassum is a growing issue. When large amounts of sargassum wash up on our beaches, it rots. This reduces the amount of oxygen in our coastal waters. Here, it releases methane and hydrogen sulfide. When it does this it traps fish, coral reefs, and marine life. It can have the ability to stabilize and nourish beaches, however, the sheer quantity of the seaweed can have the opposite effect. Beyond having huge implications for marine life, it is also bad for tourism, which many people depend on. The seaweed threatens the image of crystal-clear waters and white sandy beaches that entice tourists to the area. When the sargassum begins to rot, it makes beaches smell like rotten eggs which further steer away tourists.

While further research is required, sargassum is hazardous to humans. When sargassum is in the ocean, it does not pose any threats to humans. However, when it has been washed up onto the shore, it begins to rot. When it does this, it releases ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. If humans inhale this even at low levels, it can cause irritation to the eyes and breathing difficulties. On the other hand, if they inhale it at high levels, sargassum can pose threats to their life. With this in mind, it is essential that action is taken to reduce the amount of sargassum overflowing on our beaches.

Benefits of Sargassum?

There have been occurrences where fish have died as a result of sargassum. This is because it blocks the sunlight which lowers oxygen production by seaweed and various other photosynthetic organisms within the water. Once the sargassum dies, the weed decomposes and uses up all oxygen within the water, therefore, causing marine life to die.

In saying that, there are some benefits to this kind of seaweed. Residents can use the seaweed since it does have its share of environmental benefits. In particular, farmers can make use of it as

a free resource in their gardens and use it as mulch, compost, or fertilizer. In addition, this kind of seaweed is a food source, nursery, and home for a wide range of marine life, including crabs, plants, shrimps, turtles, fish, and much more.

Moreover, it helps in developing sand dunes which are an excellent help when restoring eroded beaches. They can also serve as landfills and biofuel. While it has implications when found in large quantities, small amounts of sargassum are critical to marine life.

How can data monitoring make an impact?

It is crucial that we work to reduce the amount of sargassum arriving on our beach shores. We need the benefits of sargassum rather than the issues. This can be achieved via data monitoring. In other words, we need to further explore sargassum to find out how to reduce it.

RanMarine Technology developed the world’s first data harvesting surface vessel called the DataShark. It focuses on collecting and collating water quality health data from waterways in any environment. It provides real-time data logging with GPS tagging. The DataShark makes sure data collection is an accurate and quick process. This is all to ensure our waters are safe for everyone.

Key Takeaways?

Sargassum can play an important role in our oceans. However, in recent years, large quantities of sargassum have been discovered on our beaches which poses great threats to marine life and human life. It is important that we act now to reduce the amount of sargassum washing up on our shores. However, it is even more crucial that we learn more about this kind of seaweed so that we can develop strategies to tackle this issue. Data monitoring could prove exemplary in helping us to find ways to reduce the sargassum on our beaches.