Wednesday, 10 June 1998
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Chambers: I thank the Minister, Deputy Woods for coming back to the House to respond to this motion. I have put this matter down for discussion because of its extreme importance to the economic life and wellbeing of the people along the western seaboard. The timing is right for the Minister, through his semi-State body Arramara Teoranta, to bring forward the strategic development plan for the development of our seaweed resources in coastal regions.
I refer specifically to the lack of development in the seaweed resources of County Mayo. I served as a director of Arramara Teoranta for five years, from 1991 to 1995, during which period the board of the company developed a plan and made two attempts to receive grant aid from the IDA to build a seaweed processing plant in County Mayo. On each occasion the board was denied the opportunity of developing that resource in the interests of the people in rural Ireland. The company had devised a substantial plan and the interests of the people were not properly served by the IDA's refusal of grant aid. The letter from the IDA stated that it could not support the Arramara Teoranta application because, and I quote:
Currently and for the past 15 years there has been no substantial seaweed production in County Mayo by any company. There is a business opportunity to develop this natural resource and I have put down this matter to indicate how important it is to make a decision in the best interests of the people.
The IDA's deplorable decision not to grant aid Arramara Teoranta on two occasions — for which I blame the board of the authority and its chief executive, Mr. Ciarán McGowan — has resulted in a substantial depopulation of young people from the rural and coastal parts of County Mayo and has hit small villages, towns, churches and schools. It has affected the income of over 200 families and caused substantial emigration. The reduction in population has led to a decrease in political strength in the county — our Dáil representation has been reduced from six to five seats. It has also led to further depopulation of our larger towns and along the western seaboard.
I ask the Minister to have this matter addressed immediately and not to entertain any more interference  with the development of the seaweed industry in County Mayo. This would be in line with Government policy and in the interest of sustaining rural population and providing income necessary for the long term sustainability of our villages and parishes.
Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources (Dr. Woods): Seaweed has been harvested along the western seaboard since at least the 12th century. Our indented coastline with mild temperatures, varying wave exposures and rock types is conducive to the growth of rich deposits of seaweed. Most seaweed harvesting is carried out in remote areas and, together with salmon farming and shellfish mariculture, contributes to the economic sustainability in areas where few alternative sources of employment exist. I agree totally with Senator Chambers in that regard.
Worldwide, over six million tonnes of seaweed are processed commercially each year, generating more than US$4 billion. Ireland produced almost 40,000 tonnes during 1997. The seaweed industry currently comprises 17 processing companies with a combined sales value worth in the region of IR£5 million. This constitutes a major increase in sales value over the past number of years, with 80 per cent of current sales being won on export markets. In excess of 500 workers are currently involved in seaweed harvesting and processing on a seasonal basis along the western seaboard. With the general consumer preference towards products manufactured from natural resources, an increasing number of commodities such as healthcare products, horticultural products, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics are made from seaweed. There is undoubted scope to increase the economic contribution of the sector through enhanced exploitation, product diversification and added value. I am again in agreement with the Senator here.
We have seen a positive increase in recent years in the realisation of the potential and opportunities of the seaweed resource. Arramara Teoranta, which is 51 percent owned by the State, is the major player in the sector and has been responsible for the large scale development of this resource to date. The company has an annual turnover of over £2 million, employing 30 people full time at its two production facilities in Connemara and Donegal. As part of its ongoing strategy Arramara Teoranta has increased its present seaweed drying capacity by 20 per cent through ongoing investment in infrastructure. The company is currently updating its corporate strategy plan and intends, as part this strategic review, to put greater emphasis on the development of its research and technology capabilities.
The success of a number of other seaweed processing companies on the western and south-western seaboard has also contributed to the unprecedented growth recorded for the industry in recent years. Compared with the extent of development in other seaweed producing countries,  the overall potential of the seaweed resource in Ireland has been insufficiently acknowledged.
The welcome and growing increase in entrepreneurial activity in recent years has led to the establishment of the Irish Seaweed Industry Organisation — ISIO — which is pursuing further development opportunities for the industry. Investment in research and development in the industry has risen since 1994, with the ISIO participating and leading some of the projects. Future sustainable development of the resource will depend primarily on the extent and nature of that resource and to that end a comprehensive national scientific survey around the coast is under way.
A research and development strategy for the seaweed sector is essential to identify and realise the potential opportunities for growth. The key objective of seaweed R and D is to maximise the use of the national resource in a manner consistent with sustainable development and with appropriate husbandry. Quantification of the resource is the first priority and in that context I have approved funding totalling £427,400 in respect of seven seaweed related projects under the marine research measure of the operational programme for fisheries 1994-9. The investment in these surveys represents a clear vote of confidence in the ability of the various participants — the colleges, industries and individuals — to pursue research and development activities leading to future economic development in the seaweed sector.
The first project, the results of which will critically inform future sustainable development strategies for the sector throughout coastal regions, covers the mapping and assessment of exploitable algal biomass off the west coast of Ireland. This project was a joint initiative by Arramara Teoranta, the Irish Seaweed Industry Organisation, University College Galway and University College Cork. The results of this survey, which has already led to capital investment in the sector, will be published later this month. The remaining projects which are progressing satisfactorily include the investigation of the distribution of maërl beds around Ireland and their potential for sustainable extraction; processing systems for commercially utilised sea vegetables; strain selection of edible brown seaweed as a key dietary component of high value shellfish; development of new seaweed based hydroseeding process for soil stabilisation and vegetation; strain hybridisation field experiments and genetic fingerprinting of the edible brown seaweed and, finally, determining the impact of hand and mechanical harvesting of knotted wrack on regeneration and biodiversity.
To take matters forward I recently announced the establishment of a seaweed forum to examine and report on the potential for development of the market for seaweed and seaweed extracts. I expect the forum to evaluate the current state of  knowledge of the seaweed resource and its economic contribution, to consult with the relevant participants and industry players; to investigate the potential uses of seaweed, taking into account future research needs and market opportunities, to examine any impediments to realising the sector's potential and to make recommendations to overcome these. The findings of the forum will inform future policy decisions required to foster enterprise and innovation in the seaweed sector.  I expect the forum to convene early next month and to report their findings to me within nine months. I am convinced that there are several opportunities for new initiatives in the seaweed industry particularly along the west coast and I believe that circumstances favouring the development of seaweed enterprises in Ireland have never been better than they are at present.
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