Seaweed harvesters reap rich rewards from exotic export
The artisanal production model was the perfect fit for an Italian algologist when she wanted to start exporting Irish seaweed to her native country, says Tom Prendeville
For hundreds of years, people on the west coast of Ireland used seaweed as a medicine, a food and a fertiliser. In the modern era, much of the ancient folk knowledge was either lost or abandoned because of its past associations with poverty.
However, thanks to a handful of pioneers, seaweed and all its incredible properties are being rediscovered and successfully marketed abroad.
Several years ago, algologist Rosaria Piseri decided to abandon her comfortable lifestyle in Milan, Italy and move to windswept Inis Moir, in the Aran Islands, Co Galway, to study the native seaweeds.
The island has a rich tradition of seaweed harvesting dating back to the 6th century monks who were the island's first inhabitants.
Living in an old cottage, Ms Piseri set about studying the treasure trove of 400 native varieties of seaweed, many of which are rich in botanicals and minerals. She soon realised that the traditional method of extracting the organic compounds - boiling or drying and crushing - destroyed many of the rare properties.
She later scoured the continent in search of a natural cold extraction machine which did not damage the rare botanicals. With the new equipment, she was able to develop, among other things, a topical treatment for herpes. She later teamed up with local seaweed harvester Micheal McCloskey and started AlgAran Teo.
The company was a success from the start and now sells sea vegetables and food products to 450 stores in Italy. The company also produces a range of high-end skin products.
Situated in Kilcar, southwest Donegal, AlgAran Teo employs five people and manufactures a growing range of organic seaweed products.
Rather than go for a big business, industrial-based model, they opted for a more artisanal production model. It's an approach favoured by customers who are seeking a more authentic natural product, and, more importantly, are willing to pay extra for the privilege.
Ms Piseri takes up the story.
"AlgAran's proxmity to the clear and crystal Atlantic waters around the Irish coast means that we can harvest only the purest organic seaweed.
"All the seaweed is hand-harvested and then rinsed on the shore, processed at 30 degrees and dried at low temperatures to preserve its rich nutritional content."
"At every stage of production, the seaweed is monitored for heavy metals and pollutants so we can provide only the best seaweed available. Our organic certification requires that all seaweed produced is free from contamination and regular analysis ensures that all seaweed products are safe and healthy to eat.
"Our seaweed products are processed to order. This means that when you purchase online you will always receive fresh organic seaveg, organic seaweed foods and organic seaweed cosmetics, full of the purest and finest ingredients from the ocean.
"We have about 25 products from cosmetics, soaps, sea vegetables and we do all sorts of foods. About 75pc of our products are exported abroad.
"When I started 10 years ago there was maybe two seaweed companies; now lots of people are gathering it - because it is free - and selling it at farmers' markets," added Ms Piseri .
One of the company's more intriguing products is organic 'Irish Sea Spaghetti' - or Himanthalia Elongata to give it its Latin name. The seaweed is full of vitamins, minerals and tannins and is highly sought after by health-conscious customers, who view it as a super food.
Harvested from summer to autumn, the young crops of sea spaghetti are very thin and tender and look very similar to the famous Japanese seaweeds, Hijiki and Arame. It is served with balsamic vinegar in salad dishes.
Seaweed products are highly prized in countries such as Japan, a trend which has now spread to the West. Globally, some 10 million tonnes of wet seaweed are harvested every year and the business is estimated to be worth in excess of €5bn.
In order to harvest seaweed here, a licence is required from the Department of Marine and Natural Resources.
Ireland's native seaweed harvesting industry comprises of less than 10 companies. However, due to sheer demand and a finite quantity of seaweed, the cottage industry would appear to have a very bright future.
Sunday Indo Business