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UK and Malaysia share seaweed knowledge

Divers collect wild seaweeds in Malaysia
Divers collect wild seaweeds in Malaysia

Leading seaweed scientists from the UK and Malaysia have met to outline how they intend to protect global wild seaweed stocks, which are under pressure from climate change.

The team working on the GlobalSeaweed SUPERSTAR project gathered at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur to map out their research plans and to meet delegates from the British High Commission.

The seaweed industry is worth billions of dollars a year, employs six million farmers worldwide and supports families in some of the poorest developing nations. The red seaweeds, which Malaysian is particularly well known for, are crucial in the production for everyday products such as food, toothpaste, soya milk and ice cream.

Yet the wild seaweed stocks, which form the genetic pool for new climate and disease-resilient commercial stocks of the future, receive minimal protection through legislation and policy.

The ultimate goal of the GlobalSeaweed SUPERSTAR is to reduce biodiversity loss and poverty, strengthen livelihoods and increase resilience of ecosystems and the people residing in them to climate change.

The project is funded by the UK’s Global Centre on Biodiversity for Climate (GCBC) – a UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) programme – and will produce a global strategy, or ‘Seaweed Breakthrough’, to be launched at the UN Oceans Conference in 2025 to urgently protect wild stocks.

Project lead Prof. Elizabeth Cottier-Cook of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban said: “Seaweeds are vital for the functioning of the marine ecosystem, supporting an immense biodiversity of marine organisms. There are also more than six million seaweed farmers in 56 countries worldwide who rely on seaweed for their livelihoods. The vast majority of farmers are in Asia, which accounts for more than 95% of global seaweed farming.

“Yet, wild seaweed communities are predicted to lose up to 71% of their current distribution by 2100, either through overharvesting or climate-driven impacts, such as pollution, invasive species or pest and disease outbreaks.”

GlobalSeaweed SUPERSTAR will also involve a core research team of Prof. Juliet Brodie of the UK’s Natural History Museum and Prof. Lim Phaik Eem of the University of Malaya, as well contributions from the United Nations University Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS).

The team believes the reduction in wild stocks and the resulting threat to the seaweed cultivation industry can be reversed through increased public and private investment in conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

At the same time, conservation of wild seaweeds and economically important seaweeds should be improved by protecting farmed seaweeds and their associated biodiversity, while increasing the use of climate-resilient strains.

Prof Cottier-Cook added: “Our trip to Malaysia brought the UK team and the Malaysian team together for the first time in this project. This allowed us the opportunity to build capacity in our early career researchers, share our knowledge with the British High Commission’s team on Climate Change Energy and Environment and to prioritise the next steps in protecting this vital global resource.

“Our shared research excellence in seaweed cultivation and conservation will bring the knowledge and experience required to really make a difference to this industry.”