If you’ve been following along with our Sea of Potential series, you’ll know the potential for seaweed harvesting and seaweed products is quite expansive – but where are we, currently, as an industry?
What needs to happen to take the Irish seaweed industry to the next level?
We have the right climate and, as an island nation, have the natural resources to go further
Ireland is among the top three European nations for seaweed harvesting – Norway and France are the others.
We have the right climate and, as an island nation, have the natural resources to go further.
But more research needs to be done to ascertain the ecological impact an increase in seaweed harvesting and/or aquaculture could have on our marine environment.
Lack of structure
Many working in seaweed say licensing and the policing of seaweed harvesting is lacking and needs structure as the industry grows. Part of this confusion may stem from the fact that licensing is granted by two separate government departments, depending on which type of work you plan to do.
A representative from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) says their remit falls only under those who plan to cultivate seaweed and practise aquaculture.
“Applications for aquaculture licences, including for seaweed, are considered under the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, the Foreshore Act 1933 and applicable national and EU legislation,” they say.
“The Department’s records indicate that there were 32 aquaculture licences granted for the cultivation of seaweed between 2011 and 2021.”
“It should be noted that the Minister does not have, under the legislation, the right to sell either any area of the foreshore or to sell seaweed rights
For harvesting wild seaweed, licensing is carried out by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. A representative tells Irish Country Living that they have responsibility for Irish foreshore areas, which is why regulation of seaweed harvesting falls under their remit.
“It should be noted that the Minister does not have, under the legislation, the right to sell either any area of the foreshore or to sell seaweed rights,” they say. “Consent under the Foreshore Act is given by way of a lease and during the period of the lease, the area remains the property of the State with the lessee paying rent to the State.”
Martin Dempsey, a pig and chicken farmer from Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, owns and operates Sealac.
The business sells a variety of seaweed-based supplements, mainly for livestock. His product line includes probiotic supplements, seaweed flake mix (which he says helps calves wean) and a seaweed-based electrolyte powder. He says his product line reduces antibiotic use and helps animals thrive.
“We’re on the west coast of Ireland and seaweed was the first thing we thought of [for an alternative to antibiotic use],” he says. “We didn’t really like the ones we found on the market, so we went to shore ourselves, harvested some and dried it at a very low temperature – the result was lovely and green; it kept its colour and smell, and that was the start of it.
The overall health of our herd improved – the piglets were hardier and the sows didn’t need as much antibiotic after farrowing
“When we saw the effects [on our animals], we thought other farmers might be interested. The overall health of our herd improved – the piglets were hardier and the sows didn’t need as much antibiotic after farrowing.”
Custodians of the foreshore
Martin works with local harvesters, who collect the seaweed species Ascophyllum nodosum for his products.
He says seaweed harvesting isn’t widely regulated, but also feels those with inherited rights to the foreshore are the ones best suited to manage their land.
“[Our] harvesters are people along the foreshore who live there and have inherited rights; they are the custodians of the foreshore and they understand it – they should be left to manage it,” he says.
“There are so many potential applications for seaweed and it regenerates every four to five years – we’re so lucky to have it. But at the minute it’s like the bog – you go and cut your own for turf.”
These inherited rights to the foreshore are one way to currently have the right to harvest seaweed in Ireland.
This means the individuals own the land along the coastline and have the rights to the foreshore and the seaweed within.
To better understand seaweed harvesting licensing in Ireland, Irish Country Living reached out to Francis O’Beirn who is Section Manager of licensing and policy advice (Marine Environment and Food Safety Services) at the Marine Institute.
“Any person wishing to take seaweed from the foreshore must apply for and be granted a foreshore licence by the Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage,” he says.
“There are exceptions, and these include individual property owners that may have the rights to harvest seaweed on foot of permissions granted in their deeds.
I would assume up to 95%, if not more, of seaweed production (by weight) is wild harvest
“These people will have to demonstrate these rights which would be conferred in Land Registry folios.”
Irish Country Living asks: how much actual seaweed aquaculture is taking place as opposed to hand harvesting wild species?
“I would assume up to 95%, if not more, of seaweed production (by weight) is wild harvest,” Francis says.
“By value, it may be different given that some of the smaller seaweed species, many of which are targeted for aquaculture, may be of considerably higher value than the bulk species which form the majority of wild harvested species.”
Just the beginning
As to whether we are just scratching the surface of seaweed potential in Ireland, Francis directs us to one of the conclusions of the National Marine Planning Framework.
“It notes that future expansion of the industry can provide employment and a positive economic contribution to coastal communities, but this will need to be balanced with a sustainable level of seaweed harvesting that ensures continued availability of this natural resource.”