Seaweeds need greater protection says Coastwatch

Published by Dave Brooks on

June 3rd, 2016

Discussions about environmental conservation typically center around issues like biodiversity loss, soil degradation or deforestation as a result of human activity. Much less frequently heard about, but no less important, is the world under the sea, where many invaluable ecosystems and ecological services occur in relative obscurity.

Irish marine environmental NGO Coastwatch recently held a one-day conference on seaweed in Dublin, in an effort to stimulate action that protects the full range of seaweeds and ecosystem services that they support off Irish coasts. The conference invited expert speakers from the U.S., Brussels and all over Ireland, where, over three sessions, they shared information on the value of seaweed and how it is under threat, the legal framework that may apply to seaweed ecosystems and traditional harvesters, and the best ways of managing this precious natural resource.

Dr. Robin Hadlock-Seeley from Cornell University gave the keynote address, first focusing on the ecological values of seaweed, illustrated by a video of a ‘wild seaweed forest’  in Maine, which supported shoals of juvenile fish and lobster. She noted the difference between ‘biomass sustainability’, where after cutting you may get regrowth of biomass in three or four years; and ‘ecological sustainability’ – i.e. maintaining the whole 3 D underwater structure of the seaweed forest and the many species who use its ecological services. This distinction highlights the need for sustainable harvesting of seaweed with respect to its place in the ecosystem.

In the panel discussion following Dr. Hadlock-Seeley’s address, a traditional seaweed harvester from Connemara, Seán Ó’ Conghaola, raised concerns about the sale to a Canadian company of the Arramara processing seaweed plant, which his family had supplied with their hand harvested seaweed for generations. While Jim Keogh from Arramara stated that no harvesting license had been granted in this case, Mr. Ó’ Conghaola’s statement ‘if you take my seaweed rights away you would take my identity’, shows the cultural importance of upholding indigenous access to these practices that have been passed down over generations.

In a particularly interesting presentation from the legal session, Italian Coastwatcher Marinella Pellé presented the Coastwatch draft legal overview of international and EU legislation relevant to wild seaweed ecosystem protection and harvesting. She concluded that there is a good body of international law and guidance, such as the recent UN Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGRGT) , which should be applied. Some key Irish national legislation should be amended and better enforced. Among amendments, she highlighted that it should comply with the Aarhus convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice.

One of the key conclusions from the day was that, at present, seaweed science and rights information is difficult to come by at all levels causing a problem for authorities, harvesters and citizens. As such, the conference called on the Irish government to close our waters to mechanical and motorised boat rake methods for wild seaweed harvesting. This moratorium was called for as we lack sufficient knowledge of seaweed ecosystems, their services and harvest impacts. The need for education and training on seaweed keystone habitat values, identification, healthy diversity and how to harvest and to avoid over exploitation was also widely agreed, with proposals that such information could be provided for schools and in training courses as the number of seaweed foragers is increasing.

[x_button shape=”square” size=”regular” float=”none” href=”” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover”]Click here to read a summary of Coastwatch’s Seaweed Conference[/x_button]

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Dave Brooks

Dave works as Communication Assistant with the Environmental Pillar. His background is in psychology and he has a masters in Environmental Psychology from the University of Surrey.