PLANS have been unveiled that will see mainland Britain’s first commercial-scale seaweed farm set up in Scottish waters later this summer.
The new facility will be run as a demonstration project that will help shape the country’s embryonic seaweed cultivation sector.
Worldwide, the seaweed aquaculture industry has been developing at an exponential rate over the past six decades. Tens of millions of tonnes are grown annually in 44 countries. China, Japan and Korea are the top producers.
There has also been fast growth in South America and East Africa, leaving the UK, Europe and North America lagging behind.
But now scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (Sams) in Oban aim to set up a one-hectare farm off the Argyll coast that could grow 24 tonnes of the marine vegetables every year.
They will plant at least seven native varieties of seaweed, which will have a multitude of potential uses.
Scotland has a history of seaweed harvesting dating to the late 17th century. It is often hailed a “superfood” as it is rich in iodine and calcium and contains natural antioxidants, minerals and amino acids.
But as well as being a highly nutritious foodstuff, seaweed has traditionally been used as a natural fertiliser and in the manufacture of cosmetics.
Its alginates are commonly used as a thickening agent in ice cream and other foods.
And in recent years there has been increasing commercial interest in its potential as a source of biofuel – seaweed can be fermented into ethanol, which can be mixed with petrol, or used in an anaerobic digestion plant to create methane gas.
The intention is to grow a handful of large brown kelp seaweed species and a few smaller red varieties, sourced from local populations.
Dr Phil Kerrison, who is spearheading the new venture, insists there is huge scope to have a “sizeable, sustainable seaweed industry” around the Scottish coast.
“Compared with Asia, we have nothing at the moment,” he said. “There is great opportunity for people prepared to take the plunge. It’s about changing people’s mindsets to see the potential of seaweed.”
He added: “At capacity, the new farm could produce around 25 tonnes of seaweed, which is big enough for someone to start a commercial farm for high-value food products.”
Sams pioneered the first Scottish research into seaweed aquaculture. Researcher Lars Brunner said: “We were the very first people in Scotland to do this kind of research, starting with very small-scale set-ups at third-party sites in the west of Scotland.
“These were very early trials to check out the best seeding methods and see which species we could out-plant.”
Fiona Houston is co-founder of the innovative Edinburgh-based firm Mara, which has recently signed deals to supply luxury seaweed food products to the likes of Marks & Spencer and Harrods.
She has been working with Sams scientists for five years while getting her business off the ground. She currently sources her raw ingredients by harvesting from the wild under Crown Estate licence.
She welcomes the prospect of large-scale cultivation.
“For us, developing the infrastructure for farming seaweed in Scotland is really good news,” she said. “This is great because we need supplies. Our challenge has been developing the supply chain. The more people who learn how to grow seaweed, the better.
“It is so high in nutrients. Just one serving – about a gram – has your daily allowance of essential vitamins.
“It’s an amazing nutritional hit. It’s like an elixir.”
Houston is also involved with Sams in trialing a small onshore tank farm to grow the red seaweed dulce, which has a long tradition as a food in Scotland and is one of Mara’s key products.
“It’s about the size of your hand, with reddish-purple leaves that look like fingers,” she said.
“It is really high in taste and has fantastic nutrients. You can use dulce flakes like a seasoning instead of herbs like parsley or salt.
“You can sprinkle it on anything from eggs and salads to fish and chips.”
Sams has received funding for its Seagas biofuel studies from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Crown Estate, which leases the sites.
Another project, IDreem, is being carried out in collaboration with Loch Fyne Oysters and supported by EU grants.
The latest move comes just months after entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland set up a similar farm in the hope of exploiting a gap in the market for edible seaweed in Japan, which was hit by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.