Kelp harvesting: what the scaremongerers don’t tell you – Sandy Dobbie

Marine Biopolymers Ltd's nanocelluose has been hailed as the 'best in the world'(Picture: Katrine Bussey/PA Wire)
Marine Biopolymers Ltd's nanocelluose has been hailed as the 'best in the world'(Picture: Katrine Bussey/PA Wire)
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A proposed ban on kelp harvesting is based on a misguided campaign and could pose a wider threat to science-based businesses, writes Dr Sandy Dobbie of Marine Biopolymers Ltd.

Scotland desperately needs sustainable growth but where will it come from? Our country has some of the best universities and research scientists in the world and punches ‘well above its weight’, particularly in chemical and life sciences. But what good is that if we don’t reap the benefits of our own innovation? If we can’t turn Scottish inventions into jobs for our people, what’s the point?

That’s the bizarre situation facing Marine Biopolymers Ltd (MBL). We could create over 40 jobs in the West Highlands based on our own scientific innovation, but we could be prevented from doing this by a scaremongering campaign that wants to stop this valuable new industry.

Our company was born in the labs at Strathclyde University and has created a new way to make alginate, a biodegradable gelling and thickening product found in specific kelp. Scotland led the world in this alginate industry for 70 years and MBL now wants to create a new, “green” successor to it based on an abundant Scottish asset – our 20 million tonnes of Laminaria hyperborea kelp.

We’d use only 0.15 per cent of this naturally regenerating resource each year; 99.85 per cent would not be touched. To put this in perspective, Nature “harvests” and replaces 100 times more every year – and nobody bats an eyelid. Norway has been harvesting it for more than 50 years on five to six times our scale, in co-existence with the fishing industry; indeed, it’s their Fisheries Ministry that oversees kelp harvesting.

Our project has evolved significantly. We’ve gone from producing alginate to looking to establish a multi-product marine biorefinery that will deconstruct this kelp into its individual chemical components, creating several products with valuable uses in medicine, food and other applications. One product is described by our research partners at Edinburgh Napier University as “the best nanocellulose they’ve ever seen”, that could be used for a host of possible applications such as protective body armour, oral vaccines and mesh implants. The alginate we’ve created for use in gastric medicines is 50 per cent better than the market leader, according to our research partner on that project. These are just two of the breakthroughs we’ve made on top of our “green” process itself, which uses less energy, water, chemicals, space and time than all other alginate processes in the world.

READ MORE: Kelp ban branded a ‘chilling’ message for scientists

MBL is at the heart of Scotland’s National Industrial Biotechnology Plan and Highland and Islands Enterprise’s £300 million MaxiMar plan for marine biotech in the Highlands, plans that will make a huge contribution to Scotland’s ambitions for Sustainable Growth.

But all of this benefit for Scotland could be lost because some people want to ban us from harvesting even a single stem from the many billions that make up our abundant forests of Laminaria hyperborea. They want to stop our project even being considered by regulators; to ban it before any evaluation – or any testing of their own objections – can be carried out. Where is the due process in this?

MBL’s view is firmly backed by Chemical Sciences Scotland and Life Sciences Scotland, the leadership groups for these critical sectors of our economy, together worth £15 billion. With others, they warn that the “kelp clause” in the Scottish Crown Estate Bill could close Scotland to science-based businesses because such businesses must have “regulatory certainty”. Scotland cannot expect companies to invest for years in technology development, working with regulators all along the way, but then change the rules at the last minute because of a campaign focused on fiction rather than fact. In such an environment, science-based businesses will just avoid Scotland; it’ll be a classic “own goal”.

READ MORE: Jonny Hughes: Kelp dredging? Why it’s time to stop pundering the sea

We believe Scotland can reap the benefit of the MBL opportunity without any adverse effects.

Opponents claim the kelp won’t regrow after harvesting but that’s untrue, as demonstrated by more than 50 years evidence from Norway and by the 10-15 per cent naturally regenerated each year in Scotland.

Some worry that we’ll cause coastal erosion; also untrue. We have been very clear that we won’t harvest any area at risk or any protected area.

Opponents claim kelp is important in fighting climate change. We absolutely agree; but harvesting just 0.15 per cent means that this is not an issue.

Some businesses are worried that we will reduce their income; again untrue. Tourist businesses will see no impact whatsoever. We won’t affect fish stocks and we’ll work closely with fishermen to ensure that kelp harvesting and fishing co-exist.

Leaders of the campaign imply that the Laminaria hyperborea kelp we need can be farmed instead. This is not only untrue, it is deceptive. They claim “kelp can be farmed” (omitting the kelp species) despite being told many times that Laminaria hyperborea cannot be farmed commercially for environmental, cost and performance reasons. The only species that can be farmed do not contain the products we need.

MBL has spent years, with great support from Scotland’s enterprise agencies, developing our process. We’ve worked extensively with marine regulators to ensure our plans are sustainable. And there are four comprehensive, independent studies of “wild harvesting”, which have been carried out, none of which suggest a ban.

Despite this, MBL could be banned from Scotland in response to this misguided campaign. We now ask MSPs to support the Government to remove the “kelp clause” from the Scottish Crown Estate Bill so that MBL’s plan – and objections to it – can be assessed on the basis of sound science and proper evidence, which we look forward to providing.

Dr Sandy Dobbie is chairman of Marine Biopolymers Ltd