Updated: Oct 13, 2020
I was in Nusa Lembongan (a small island off the coast of Bali) last month with a friend. We were clambering over some rocks in a scenic area called the Devil’s Tear when a young man with some fancy filming gear followed us frantically calling for an interview. Ordinarily this area would be swarming with Chinese and other tourists hoping for a good Instagram shot with the waves crashing behind them. During the pandemic, however, it was just the two of us. The journalist, who turned out to be from Reuters, was thrilled to find a Bule (foreigner) to talk to.
I am of course always happy to be on camera and agreed readily with his request. He wanted to know what I thought about the Lembongan Balinese developing their seaweed industry. Not knowing a great deal about the sector, I told him it wasn’t up to me to tell the Indonesians what to do but diversification away from tourism sounded like a good idea if there were opportunities available. The journalist (@sultan.anshori) seemed happy with that, and my friend and I popped back on our motorbikes to continue our tour. Literally minutes later we turned down the road that takes travellers to the yellow bridge between Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan and, there in the estuary, were hundreds of seaweed plantations! I was in Lembongan just a year ago at which time may have been a handful and not very noticeable. So, the Balinese have been their usual industrious selves and they suddenly have an important and rapidly growing industry.
As it happens, I mention Seaweed Farming in the book as an important food and fuel supply of the future. It turns out it's pretty important now, and its highly likely the industry will be developing a great deal more over the next decade or so.
In the last twenty years, output of farmed aquatic plants (mostly seaweed and kelp) has increased by more than 100% worldwide. In Japan alone, the production of Nori for food is worth US$2 billion. It’s also produced commercially on a large scale (for export) in Korea, Tanzania, Canada, the Philippines and now Indonesia. It is used to make agar and carrageenan, both needed for their gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties. This is important in food production and also in the chemical industry for industrial products and pharmaceuticals. Blood agar is also used to cultivate bacteria and diagnose infection. Producers of course also promote the health benefits of seaweed eaten directly.
Seaweed oil can also be used for food preparation, as massage oil and in soaps and lotions, and as biofuel. Algal oil, like other biofuels, can be an alternative liquid fuel to fossil fuels. In fact, while Exxon slowed down their investments ten years ago, they did suggest that it would be around twenty-five years when the fuel became commercially viable, so we may be using seaweed on our cars, motorbikes or flying pods within half a generation.
Apart from cheaper food production and job opportunities in places like Bali, the other benefits of seaweed production are environmental. Seaweed farming has ocean regeneration capabilities – it captures and absorbs nitrogen and other nutrients. This is worthwhile in areas where there is agricultural runoff into estuaries and river mouths. Seaweed farming can help protect coral reefs by increasing diversity, and it also helps increase the populations of edible herbivorous fish and shellfish. Further, large scale seaweed cultivation can help with carbon sequestration which will mitigate climate change. According to a group of researchers led by the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, if we covered just 9% of the world’s oceans with kelp forests we could produce enough methane to replace all of our fossil fuels and also remove 53 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year.
There are some downsides of course. The Lembongans can't grow rice on their rocky, sandy island and seaweed certainly isn't a staple. It just isn't in the Indonesian diet so this is a cash crop for the Balinese on Nusa Lembongan. If something happened to the industry they wouldn't be able to eat the product! Also, there have been reports of mangroves swamps - vital for estuarine health, being cut down in seaweed growing areas. However since this damages the seaweed crop, the process is generally self-mitigating. Finally, and possibly least importantly, the beautiful estuary between Lembongan and Ceningan islands is now a bit of a smelly eyesore. Since we are in the middle of the pandemic there aren't tourists at the moment and this is likely the least of the Lembongan's worries!