New seaweed markets could be a boon for harvesters

Long regarded as a food for the poor, seaweed is now in demand for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals

The future of a 300-year-old industry that has helped shape the identity of coastal communities and played a role in assisting those afflicted by the Famine could be in doubt, according to new research from NUIG.

A new research paper on Irish seaweed harvesting says there is a danger that future generations may bypass the traditional practice in favour of migrating to areas with better employment prospects.

"The age profile of the average harvester and the difficulty in recruiting the younger generation to harvest seaweed poses a threat to this traditional practice," say researchers from Earth and Ocean Sciences and the Ryan institute at NUI Galway.

“A paucity of harvesters will likely threaten the ability to ensure raw material supply to the industry in the near future.”


There is a glimmer of hope, however, in the shape of a burgeoning market for seaweed in cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

This journey from niche foodstuff to production material is explored in “The seaweed resources of Ireland: a twenty-first century perspective”, recently published in the Journal of Applied Phycology.

Rich history

As it notes, the harvesting of wild seaweeds continues to play an important cultural and socioeconomic role for many coastal communities on Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard and comes from a rich history.

Dr Liam Morrison, who led the study co-authored by Michéal Mac Monagail, said developing prospects and uses could save the generations-old practice.

“What is a little bit worrying is the age profile of the harvesters – they are all getting older,” he said. “What we really need to do is get more young people into the industry.”

However, he believes the answer lies in moving from a high-volume, low-value use such as animal feed to a low-volume, high-value product for emerging pharmaceutical and cosmetic producers. That could offer sustainable employment along Ireland’s coasts.


Long regarded as a food source for the poor, “due in part to the relation to their consumption during the Great Famine in the 1840s”, seaweeds have since “undergone a renaissance”, the report notes, and are now considered both a nutritious and versatile addition to cooking.

Today, anyone looking to harvest seaweeds must apply for a licence, but there are plenty of legal exceptions with ongoing and “rigorous” efforts on the part of the State to protect the rights of traditional gatherers.

Only a few species are exploited commercially. Since 1966, the industry has focused mainly on wild stocks of Ascophyllum nodosum with most material cut by hand using traditional techniques.

Ireland is the third-highest producer in Europe, behind Norway and France, and in 2016, it landed 29,500 tonnes, about 11 per cent of the total market.

“It is important to note that few people (if any) make their sole income through seaweed harvesting, and very few people officially declare themselves as harvesters,” the report says.

Even so, about 700 people were working in the sector at the end of the 20th century and this year it is expected to be worth €30 million.

Producers target niche buyers and the sector “has yet to reach anywhere near its full potential”, the report says – at the time of its completion there were 17 pending licence applications.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times