Globally, seaweed is the largest aquaculture production by volume at over eight million wet metric tonnes per annum (FAO 2003). Mostly this production is for traditional foods in Asia and the commodity markets of agar, alginates and carageenans. However, there is also untapped potential in smaller, high product value markets for nutritional and health applications. This is where Australia's best investment in a seaweed industry may lie.
Australia has a number of advantages and opportunities that present themselves with regard to the development of a seaweed cultivation industry. Of particular advantage for Australia is the large coastal zone area with unpolluted waters. This fits very well with the production of high quality health and food products that require internationally recognised traceability and testable safety standards. The development of seaweed cultivation technology in the coastal zone could also pave the way for new crops in large areas of saline affected agricultural land; an as yet unrealised ambition. Alternative saline tolerant and low freshwater demanding crops will be important to food and water security in a changing climate. The expansion of land-based aquaculture industries in Australia also present an opportunity to investigate the development of seaweed cultivation technology by making use of aquaculture infrastructure, such as seawater intakes, to develop scaled-up cultivation systems. This also provides environmental benefits to the aquaculture industry.
There are however serious challenges to overcome. Australia has no tradition in the cultivation of seaweed and application of the science supporting it. The propagation and control of complex biological lifecycles and the physiological requirements of Australian seaweeds are not well established. As for any new and emerging industry, lessons need to be learned from the overseas experience and new and innovative solutions for the Australian context need to be developed. In addition, Australia will have to develop its own track record, profile and niche products in this industry where the greatest value is likely to come from products with high nutritional and health benefits.
This report presents findings that demonstrate an untapped potential for cultivation of a number of local Australian seaweed species, but it also identifies the challenges facing commercial-scale production. Importantly, it also provides evidence that Australia has the capacity and potential to undertake cutting edge screening and development of healthy seaweed products, in particular, products with nutraceutical and anti-cancer applications.
This report is an addition to RIRDC's diverse range of over 2000 research publications and it forms part of our New Plant Products R&D program, which aims to facilitate the development of new industries based on plants or plant products that have commercial potential for Australia.