Mankind's enduring entanglement with seaweed

By John Keane 104 Church Street, Listowel, Co Kerry, Ireland

Over 1,000 years ago, the monks stranded on magnificent Skellig Micháel, the island outpost 12km off the coast of South-West Kerry harvested seaweed.
Surviving annals written by the friars, explained that it formed part of their diet along with fish, sea birds, birds' eggs and vegetables from their own garden. It is known around the world as the location for The Force Awakens, from the Star Wars film franchise.

One of Ireland's favourite early Christian saints, St Brendan (who it is claimed discovered America long before Christopher Columbus), is thought to have carried seagrass on his voyage across the Atlantic to stave off scurvy.

Seaweed is one of Ireland's least used and richest resources. With almost 1,500 kilometres of coastline, our Atlantic coast is warmed by the fertile currents of the Gulf Stream providing ideal conditions for the hundreds of species of seaweed which grow here.

Interestingly, Ireland's marine territory extends far beyond our coastline up to 220 million acres (approx. 880,000km2), an area more than 10 times our land mass, rich in seaweed.

We know from detailed archaeological analysis, that the people in southern Chile were cooking seaweed, mixed with other plants 14,000 years ago.
The traditional harvesting of seaweed in Ireland dates from at least the 17th century and this was true in particular after storms. The kelp was taken from the beach and burnt in stone circles known as kelp kilns, the ruins of which are still visible along the west coast.  The remaining ash contained soda and potash which was used for glazing pottery and for making glass and soap.

In the mid-18th century, the ash was found to contain iodine and this discovery kept the tradition alive until World War II. Today, small amounts of kelp are harvested for the sea-vegetable industry and as feed for farmed shellfish, specifically urchins and abalone.

The haunting images, from the mid to late 1800s, of men and women foraging for seaweed along the West of Ireland seaboard are a reminder of a dark time in our history, during and after The Great Hunger.

For many, seaweed conjures up images of people with lived-in faces selling plants of the sea (duil iasc) along the streets of seaside towns in the Southwest of Ireland.
For others, it is the image of the gel released from the seaweed in the hot water of Collins Seaweed Baths in Ballybunion and similar baths in Enniscrone, Co Sligo.
There are long lasting links between these incredibly versatile algae and the people of the island of Ireland. Although, The Famine (The Great Hunger) occurred in the middle of the 19th century, it cast a great shadow over the people and starving parents turned to seaweed to feed their children. It is referenced by The Bull McCabe in the play, The Field written in 1965 by John B. Keane. The Bull refers to the seaweed he and his son Tadhg drew from the beach to fertilise the land they had been renting which was being sold by the owner. He utters the immortal line, "God created seaweed… The seaweed made the world."

The deep bond between people living by the coast and seaweed continues as biotechnology companies like BioAtlantis look anew at seaweed as the raw material to drive innovation and tackle climate change.

BioAtlantis leads the scientific-based movement to reduce the world's dependence on agrochemicals and avoid the overuse of antibiotics in animals which is causing a build-up of resistance to antibiotics important to humans. This is done by extracting life-priming bioactives in seaweed.

BioAtlantis is a world leader in priming crops against oxidative stress caused by extreme weather events such as cold, drought, heat and waterlogging. These events are increasing in regularity due to climate change, BioAtlantis is doing its bit to tackle this threat to humanity.