Seaweed kelps island economy stay healthy

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IT LOOKS like a combine harvester, only it is gathering its bounty from the sea.

A machine built for the Florida Everglades is now working the length of the Western Isles cutting seaweed for a business unique in Britain.

The Hebridean Seaweed Company, based at Arnish on Lewis, operates the country's only processing plant, which is trying to establish itself in a growing market against larger rivals in Ireland, Norway and Iceland.

The company was set up in 2006, reviving a traditional industry that once supported thousands of jobs in Scotland.

It employs eight people at Arnish and 30 cutters throughout the islands, who can earn between 100 and 250 a day.

The new machine, called an aquamarine aquatic plant harvester, has been bought to complement the cutters and can be used without tidal constraints.

Martin Macleod, a partner in the company, said: "Our competitors use this type of machine and we wanted to see how it works here. It's a proven and more sustainable method of harvesting.

"It's the only machine of its kind operating in Britain. The machines are built in Canada and were originally designed for lake weed harvesting and are modified for seaweed harvesting in a saltwater environment."

The machine-cut seaweed is stored at sea in sacks, each holding a tonne, and then taken to the plant for drying and processing. It is then sent to various markets via an agent in Stirling.

Mr Macleod said: "It gives you a more sustainable method of harvesting the plant and stops us getting any contamination in it.

"We are in this industry for the long term and have to ensure we are doing it correctly. Our aim is to be the best processor of seaweed, not just in Britain but in the world, and do it the cleanest, most efficient way."

The company aims to harvest 4,000-6,000 tonnes of seaweed a year and estimates it is taking less than 1 per cent of the islands' resource annually.

More than half goes into mineral supplements for animals and some into the pharmaceutical and alginate industries. It is hoped also to the supply the health food market in future.

Mr Macleod said: "It's a growing market; we are getting enquiries from all over and from all different types of people. People are not becoming less healthy because of the credit crunch. If anything, it's the other way round."

Hebridean Seaweed has an exclusive agreement with the Crown Estate and local private estates to harvest the plants throughout the Western Isles.

Seaweed cutters work all year round, usually combining the work with traditional activities like crofting and fishing.

The use of seaweed in Scotland dates from St Columba's day, when a poem refers to the monks on Iona collecting dulse as part of their diet.

In the mid-18th century, seaweed brought in about 7 million at today's prices in the Western Isles.

But the fortunes of the industry fluctuated over the years as more applications were found for seaweed, but more easily obtainable materials for major industries were also discovered.