Scotland could lose out on a £300 million industry if MSPs vote to ban the industrial harvesting of kelp in its waters, company bosses have claimed.
Ayr-based Marine Biopolymers (MBL) wants to harvest 30,000 tonnes of kelp off the West Coast before using a revolutionary process it has developed to create a product which could be used to make “invisible armour” or slow release cancer drugs.
The nanocellulose it produces from the seaweed is the “best in the world”, it claims, and could have a whole host of possible applications – including an alternative to the vaginal mesh implants which have left some women in crippling pain.
But this new industry, which MBL estimates could be worth £300 million a year to Scotland’s economy, will be halted if MSPs pass new legislation that bans dredging for kelp.
After more than 14,000 people signed a petition against such dredging, Green MSP Mark Ruskell successfully amended the Scottish Crown Estate Bill to ban the removal of entire kelp plants. Veteran naturalist Sir David Attenborough has also spoken out in support, saying it is “absolutely imperative that we protect our kelp forests”.
But MBL co-founder David Mackie insisted its plans to harvest the seaweed laminaria hyperborea are “entirely sustainable” – pointing out there is an estimated 20 million tonnes of it in Scotland’s waters. The kelp, which he described as “the daddy of the seaweeds in Scottish waters”, grows up to 8ft long, with the plants attaching themselves to rocky surfaces.
He said: “People say we intend to dredge. Well, you can’t dredge a rocky bottom, so we’re not doing that.”
He insisted the seaweed is “really abundant” in Scottish waters, adding that its special properties come from the “tough conditions” it is subjected to as it is battered by underwater currents.
As MBL developed its processes to remove alginate from the seaweed, it found marine cellulose was also produced.
Mark Dorris, a senior research fellow and lecturer in material science at Edinburgh’s Napier University, has been working with that to create new bioplastic materials, the starting point of which are fibres which are 1,000th of the width of a human hair.
Wood pulp is already used to produce nanocellulose, but Dr Dorris said when kelp is used the end result is “better than any nanocellulose in the world”.