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The seaweed farmers with high hopes for their harvest


As it emerges from the water, it doesn’t look how you might expect it to. Not dark green, slimy and smelly, but golden, lush and translucent.

The kelp being farmed off the east coast of Skye confounds expectations – and may do a lot more than that.

This is one of the first big seaweed farms in Scotland and its promoters have high hopes.

They believe that seaweed products could be used for vegan food, protein supplements, cosmetics, even recyclable packaging.

The kelp is grown on an array of 250 metre ropes, parallel to each other and held horizontally just below the surface by buoys.

The collection that I’m witnessing is for testing purposes. The main harvest happened back in May, when the kelp was at its best.

But Kyla Orr, one of the team of three running the farm, is pleased with what she’s seeing.

“It’s looking really healthy. For such a late seeding, it’s doing really well,” she says.

Kyla, a marine scientist, spent nine years as a fisheries consultant and when Covid hit and many boats lay idle, she realised that there was a desperate need for diversification.

She and her partner, Alex, and a local fisherman, Martin Welch, decided to explore the potential of seaweed as an alternative source of income for fishing communities.

Martin offers me a piece straight out of the sea. It is crunchy, salty and tastes a little like fresh greens. He’s been eating it since he was a child.

“All the goodies in it, the compounds and stuff that’s in there, that’s kept the Highlanders alive during the famines,” he says.

“And when I first came up to Skye, we would get seaweed soup all the time.

“And as you’re a wee kiddie you think, that’s a bit weird and you struggle through with it.”

But this project is not about childhood nostalgia or Highland history. It’s about the future – and big, influential organisations are starting to take notice.

The global conservation group, WWF, has invested in the company that will process the Skye farm’s kelp.

Speaking on a link from New York, their spokesman, Paul Dobbins, told me the potential is unlimited.

“Perhaps it could displace some of the animal feed that we currently grow on land, so that that land can be used to grow food for humans,” he says.

“It could potentially replace some of the materials used in packaging, so that we don’t have to use as many petroleum-based packaging materials.

“Seaweed produces protein and it’s the lowest input producer of protein.”

Charlie Bavington, the co-founder Oceanium, which is processing the Skye farm’s kelp, is also optimistic.

He compares it to Scotland’s highest value food export.

“It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that seaweed would surpass salmon in terms of volume quite quickly, with even quite a small part of the UK coastal waters used, and could grow to surpass salmon in terms of value as well,” he says.

These are bold claims for an industry still in its infancy.

Seaweed is a big and well-established business in many parts of Asia. The first seaweed farm in Japan was set up in Tokyo Bay in the 1600s.

Kelp soup and a lot else besides might well be on the menu in the UK in the future. – BBC


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