Big company plan to harvest kelp makes waves

giant kelp

Ailsa McLellan dons her wellies and waterproofs and heads to the seaweed-covered shoreline near her home in Leckmelm outside Ullapool.

Around her, there is nothing for company but the mountainous backdrop and the lapping of the waves.

With painstaking precision, the marine biologist selects a mature kelp and cuts it away from the rocks with scissors before taking it home for drying. After that, she will sell it on to her buyers, who include an upmarket restaurant in London. It is no money-spinning venture, but it supplements the oyster business she runs with her husband.

But a threat is looming to seaweed harvesting by hand on the west coast.

Marine Biopolymers, a company with offices in Ayr, hopes to secure a licence to take 30,000 tonnes a year of kelp from sea lochs, covering the coastline from Islay up to Lewis and Sutherland.

Seaweed is used in many products, from pharmaceuticals to food, and the market is growing. Marine Biopolymers says it will create 40 jobs at a new processing plant in Mallaig.

Ms McLellan, 40, is steadfastly opposed to the plan. “I have not spoken to one single person that thinks this is a good idea,” she said.

“I do not believe coastal communities want to see this. It would be unethical to dredge a valuable habitat like this for the benefit of one large chemical company and against the wishes of the people here.”

The ecosystem that the kelp sustains is too precious, she said. It absorbs carbon and acts as a buffer against ocean acidification. It also provides a storm barrier for coasts because it takes the power out of the waves.

“This is really important if you live somewhere like Uist that has increasing issues with coastal erosion,” Ms McLellan said. “We should be revering kelp and protecting it. It’s bonkers to even think about dredging it up.”

The company rejects her views, saying that 30,000 tonnes of kelp is only 3 per cent of the plant’s biomass.

Furthermore, the company says, its proposed harvesting method will not result in any lasting damage. The process involves a curved, rake-like device being dragged through the water that cuts the kelp 50cm above the seabed. “Our proposed focus is on harvesting kelp, not dredging,” a spokesman said. “Our harvesting method will target older kelp plants, leaving the younger plants intact to mature.”

Local fishermen are not convinced. Duncan MacInnes, secretary of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, said: “This type of mechanical harvesting, which will damage the stems and the roots of the kelp, will have a huge and detrimental effect.” As part of the licensing procedure, the plans will be subject to consultation and an assessment of the effect on the environment.

“In Norway, they have been harvesting the same type of kelp successfully for more than 50 years,” the Marine Biopolymers spokesman added.

Not so, according to Ms McLellan. “In Norway the impacts are starting to be understood — sometimes the kelp grows back, sometimes it does not,” she said. “The only thing we know for a fact is that a vital habitat will be reduced, if not destroyed.”

This article was originally published as Big company plan to harvest kelp makes waves on west coast at The Times on 04/09/18.

Tags: , , , ,