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Not Just Nori: the Importance of Seaweed

Cancelled trains; worried grandparents; the distant complaints of disappointed billionaire Alfred Dunhill competitors — our small seaside town was certainly shaken by Storm Babet over Independent Learning Week. St Andrews was just below that menacing Red Warning that engulfed parts of Aberdeenshire, meaning that parents and grandparents may have been right for ringing us again and again at all the most inconvenient times: the storm left three dead and 40,000 homes without power in just that Scottish region alone.

And any of you who, like me, incorporate the occasional meander to the beach into your weekly routine may have found your carefully curated main-character moment disrupted by the state of the St Andrews coast.

I have always respected the North Sea’s temper — she is feisty and unpredictable, and her changing mood is (apart from the ever-so-slightly self-indulgent nature of my own seaside reflections) the reason I routinely return to her shores. However, recently she has not just been throwing out her usual attitude, but, driftwood, dead fish and birds, and most concerninglyl: heaps and heaps of slimy brown seaweed. The stuff is not just hard to walk through or to visually ignore but seaweed happens to be the cause of that eggy sulphur scent you may have found yourself victim to.

Unfortunately, its impacts on our beaches are worse still. Seaweed works as both a natural carbon capture and has an increasingly promising biofuel potential.

For decades, the global demand for seaweed has been primarily for Nori ­— the (delicious) seaweed wrapped around your Combini sushi or nibbled on straight-out-the-packet by your health-kick friend. The seaweed that you might find in the list of ingredients for your mum’s moisturiser is also likely to be this red seaweed. Most red seaweed is harvested in Asia – in fact, 95 per cent of all global seaweed production takes place in Asia.

Now, according to the Scottish Government’s Marine Directorate, we are unlikely to find any of these red seaweed types on our three beaches — though it does grow on the shores of the West Peninsulas. Around St Andrews, though, you can find all three other types ­— green seaweed, brown seaweed (kelp), and wrack seaweed. Currently, the large majority of all Scottish seaweed harvesting happens in the Outer Hebrides, but there is growing commercial interest in the Scottish mainland in its production in other areas, as more properties and potential uses are being discovered.

Brown seaweed, which is abundantly available on St Andrews’ shores, offers exciting prospects for biofuel production. With bolstered production methods within the industry encouraging high yields, and seaweed being a naturally robust crop that requires no fertiliser, nutrients, or fresh water, seaweed looks like one of the most sustainable resources for biofuel energy. The US Department of Energy estimates that enough algae could be grown to fuel all US-based petroleum vehicles in land area that is 0.5 per cent of the nation — equivalent to one seventh of the land used currently to grow corn in the States.

What’s more – the benefits are two sided! Encouraging seaweed growth in the Scottish seabed serves as a natural form of carbon capture. The MIT Technology Review reckons that as much as 175 million tons of carbon is sequestered each year as seaweed photosynthesises and fronds sink to the deep part of the ocean. If we advance the amount we have of it, by encouraging its growth and intentionally sinking it, this carbon capture effect is bound to increase.

So, next time you find yourself wishing that your seaside walk was slightly less smelly and more picturesque — remember, seaweed is doing much to protect us and we should be doing everything we can to keep it’s health under wraps!

Illustration by Lauren White

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