By: Miguel Sepulveda, Marine Biologist *
Kappaphycus alvarezii, a species cultivated in at least 30 countries, is the main raw material for obtaining kappa carrageenan, an odorless, tasteless powder widely used in the food and cosmetics industry. In 2017, Brazil imported about 2,500 tons of Carrageenan valued at USD 22 million. This article analyses the potential that the Brazilian coast has for developing a sustainable seaweed farming industry with very postivie socioeconomic impacts in the region.
According to FAO (Fish STAT 2012), in 2010, volumes of the order of 160,000 tons of Kappaphycus alvarezii seaweed were produced, with the main producing countries being the Philippines (89,000 tons), Indonesia (61,000 tons), Malaysia (4,000 ton), Vietnam (2,200 tons), Tanzania (1,500 tons), Kiribati (1,100 tons), China (800 tons) and India (400 tons).
In this context, Kappaphycus alvarezii, a species cultivated in at least 30 countries, is the main raw material for obtaining kappa carrageenan, an odorless, tasteless powder widely used in the food and cosmetics industry.
In 2017, Brazil imported about 2,500 tons of Carrageenan valued at USD 22 million. Across the world, the main Carrageenan producing industries are:
• FMC BioPolymer, Hercules and Cargill (USA);
• Shemberg, Marcel (Philippines);
• Degussa SKW (Germany);
• CP Kelco (Denmark);
• Gelymar and Danisco (Chile);
• Rhodia Food (France) and Ceamsa (Spain).
Seaweed farming of Kappaphycus alvarezii in Brazil
A clone of the K. alvarezii macroalgae from Japan was brought in 1995 by USP researcher Edison José de Paula, who introduced it experimentally in Ubatuba Island, north coast of São Paulo. The introduction of a species from another country was a response to the lack of native algae that was economically viable for mariculture.
“Since then, this species has proved to be an excellent choice since it is easyto-use and reproduce; it has a high daily growth rate and an attractive market value.”
It also generates direct employment and increases family income and represents guaranteed sales in the national market, besides the potential of commercialization with other countries that import large volumes of this species.
After a few years, in 1998, a second Venezuelan clone of K. alvarezii was introduced experimentally in Ilha Grande Bay, by the Marine Biologist Miguel Sepulveda in the south coast of the State of Rio de Janeiro, with the objective of testing the viability of mariculture in commercial scale, using a particular prototype of “Culture Raft.”
From then on, we saw the expansion of farming in Ilha Grande Bay, culminating in the emergence of the Sete Ondas Biomar Company, which, although now extinct, had an important role in leveraging the activity, maintaining for a few years production with 100 cultivation rafts in the region of Marambaia (RJ).
The seaweed farming in Ilha Grande Bay was supported by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture (MPA), by IBAMA, and by researchers from various institutions, who stimulated and collaborated with the activity regulation.
In 2008, after several environmental studies of universities and institutes, Normative Instruction No. 185 Brazilian Institute of Environment (IBAMA), was published in the Official Daily of the Union, authorizing and regulating the cultivation of the macroalgae K. alvarezii in the area between the Bay of Sepetiba (RJ) and Ilha Bela (SP).
“In the littoral of Santa Catarina, south of Brazil, the potential of this species’ mariculture has already been very promising, and this year is expected a release of IBAMA for the implantation of commercial farms.”
The studies carried out by researchers from UFSC and EPAGRI showed that the Santa Catarina coast has areas with the potential to produce about 730 tons of dry seaweed per year. In addition, there are technical indicators of productivity of the K. alvarezii cultivation in consortium with mollusks grown in this region, which further increases the success of the activity.
On the north coast of the State of São Paulo, some producers are still struggling to expand their crops. Obstacles are due to the lack of an Environmental Management Plan within the APAMLN (Marine Environmental Protection Area of the North Coast), which has made it difficult to expand the cultivation of this species in the region.
“Nevertheless, researchers from the Fisheries Institute, together with a group called Mariculture GT, are engaged in regulating this activity with IBAMA.”
In 2013, a doctoral thesis conducted in Oceanography of the Federal University of Pernambuco aimed to evaluate the cultivation of Kappaphycus introduced in early 2000 in the state of Paraíba and has been cultivated by fishermen in an artisanal scale, generating questions about the risk of environmental invasion to the local ecosystem.
The results of the study, however, showed that, to date, there is no establishment of K. alvarezii in the north coast of Paraíba, and the invasion potential of the species considered very low for the region, although there is a recommendation for the continuity of environmental monitoring in the area under cultivation.
The theme is controversial, but we must not forget the enormous potential for the cultivation of Kappaphycus on the northeast coast. It is also worth mentioning that after four decades of successful introductions with K. alvarezii in several countries, few cases of effective establishment of introduced algae stem were proven.
Production, profitability, and technical aspects
The species K. alvarezii requires some favorable conditions for its cultivation, such as protected bays of strong waves and an average depth of 0.50 cm, hot water (above 20º C), good luminosity, and salinity above 20 ppm. Its cultivation does not require high technology and can be started with relatively low investment, which significantly facilitates the activity’s expansion.
“It is also worth mentioning that the producer, to begin his cultivation, acquires only some kilos of seedlings. After that, the propagation of the seedlings is only vegetative, and not necessary to buy new seedlings, only to maintain a stock for replanting.”
In Brazil, the seaweed farming method structure, better known as a “Raft Culture,” is composed of a set of PVC pipes with a diameter of 100 mm and 3 meters in length, sealed at their ends, functioning as floats connected through 8 mm polypropylene cables.
The Raft has a dimension of 150m x 3m (450 m2 ) and is anchored at its ends using iron stakes buried in the bottom or concrete cement blocks.
On average, one Raft can produce 7 tons of live algae every 50 days. Up to 8 tons in summer, depending on the place of cultivation and other factors such as algal density, water temperature, salinity, luminosity, and herbivory. These values are crude since, during the harvest, 20% of the algae must be separated for new replanting seedlings.
The cost of each Raft of 450 m2 – is around USD 1.00.00. Per hectare, we can consider an average load capacity of 15 Rafts, since the good navigability conditions of boats and canoes in the cultivation area must be taken into account, as well as movements of ferries in the local stream regimes.
The number of people operating in the farm should also be taken into account, and it is estimated that four people can operate on handling 1 hectare.
Traditionally, the most widely used cultivation or propagation technique in the world for cultivating Kappaphycus is to cut 100g algae branches and tie them in small cables known as “Tie-tie”, which are placed in lines with a spacing of 20cm apart, being soon after, fixed in stakes in the substrate, in a depth of a maximum of 1 meter.
This method, known as “Stake Cultivating” or “Bottom Monolines, “ is limited to low depth regions, enabling the farmer to easily manage the crop. The technique can also be used in Raft systems or long lines.
Another cultivation technique known as “Tubular Net” was introduced in Brazil by businessman Mr. Alexandre Feder from AlgasBras Company (Brasil-RJ) in 2005, after a visit to some Farms in the Philippines where this method was used.
Simple and easy to handle, it consists of placing the algae seedlings (100g) in a tubular net (net used for the cultivation of mussels) with 5 meters in length, with the aid of a PVC pipe of 75mm. Then the nets are stretched in the modules of the Cultivation Raft close to the surface.
Nowadays, it has been the most used method due to the speed for planting and the easiness of harvesting it allows. Currently, the Brazilian scenario of Kappaphycus cultivation in the only belt released by IBAMA (between the Bay of Sepetiba-RJ and Ilha Bela-SP) can still be considered incipient, even after eight years of its release.
“However, we can consider as quite promising the efforts made by some entrepreneurs for years. As a result, there are currently two commercial crops in Paraty – RJ and three in Ilha Grande – RJ.”
The production of these projects is directed to the company Algasbras (www.algasbras.com.br), located in the municipality of Itaguaí – Rio de Janeiro, which has been playing an important role in the development of the activity in recent years.
This company has its facilities dedicated to the processing of seaweeds to produce kappa carrageenan, a product traded on the national market. For this, the company buys all the region’s fresh produce, besides having its seedling in Itacuruça.
“According to the director of the company, Alexandre Feder, in 2017, about 500 fresh tons of seaweeds were bought and processed.”
The Algasbras company is responsible for logistical support to the factory. By 2019, the company intends to initially promote the cultivation of algae for ten families of artisanal fishermen in the Ilha Grande Bay region, with a forecast of reaching a production of 1,000 tons of fresh seaweeds to supply the factory every month.
Another Brazilian company, Agar Gel (www.agargel.com), located in João Pessoa – PB, also processes K.alvarezii to obtain Carrageenan. This demand means another alternative for the production of the South and Southeast regions. Another perspective to be evaluated would be to export Brazilian production to nearby countries such as Chile and Argentina.
These countries have processing factories such as Gelymar and Soriano S.A., which import more than 100 tonnes per month of dry Kappaphycus, at prices ranging from 2 to 4 dollars per kilo. Meanwhile, the minimum export volumes are still considered high for the local producers of Ilha Grande Bay, since the international factories buy at least one container of 10 to 20 dry tons.
Although we are a little far from this reality in Brazil, we have the potential to produce and export at this rate in the near future, considering the expansion of the activity in other Brazilian coastal states. Therefore, the potential for the mariculture of Kappaphycus can be the object of local development projects in several fishing communities on the South and Southeast coasts.
Seaweed Farming in other countries (South and Central America)
In addition to the Asian countries already mentioned, K. alvarezii seaweed has also been grown in Panama, Ecuador, Santa Lucia, Belize, San Vicente, Trinidad Tobago, the Grenadines, and Mexico. However, production in these countries is still small, and the product is processed locally or exported.
The governments of these countries have supported the activity with incentive programs for cultivation and technical training. In Ecuador, the seaweed Kappaphycus was introduced in 2011 by the Brazilian company Seaweed Consulting (www.seaweedconsulting.com) to be experimentally farmed with Litopenaeus vannamei shrimp farms.
The results were very positive, showing a great potential of this species for the polyculture. Currently, two shrimp farms are producing Kappaphycus with the “Stake Farming” or “Monolines” system, and the Ecuatorian govern ment is promoting its cultivation at sea through a local cooperative of artisanal fishermen (FENACOPEC).
In Panama, the company “Gracilarias de Panamá S.A” produces and promotes the cultivation of Kappaphycus for local fishermen, exporting all their production. In Panama, since 1990, the government has supported pilot farms in Colon and Bocas del Toro as an alternative to some local communities.
As a result, the annual production of Kappaphycus in this region is increasing together with financial inflows and jobs. In addition to being an attractive business option, seaweed farming con tributes to poverty reduction through the generation of jobs and income, propelling traditional communities’ establishment in their places of origin.
Efforts have been directed at establishing clear rules in relation to environmental licensing and government areas. Several international institutions and experts have shared experiences in the past 30 years for a successful commercial seaweed cultivation program.
From which it is important to highlight the following aspects to take into account to develop a successful seaweed farming program in Brazil:
1.Government support, including the granting of licenses necessary for the development of the activity;
2.Existence of a safe and reliable market;
3.Availability of the economic resources needed for the operation of the program to reach commercial volumes;
4.Design management and competent execution of the project. This includes the linkage of technical and professional staff to field workers and the adequate identification of the barriers that impede the entry of farmers into commercial activity and the development of strategies to overcome them.
5.The appropriate selection of suitable places for the establishment of crops to guarantee the program’s success in the community and justify the investment of time, effort, and resources.
6.Clear and precise identification of the main constraints that have the individuals from the communities to join the project (investment capital for seedlings, training and technical assistance, business organization, basic services, etc.)
7.Enough seedlings available and adapted to local ecological and environmental conditions and the cultivation systems to be employed. Also, Kappaphycus algae must synthesize high-quality carrageenan of commercial interest.
8.Technical assistance and permanent business partnerships, from the installation of the crops to their commercial phase, including the subsequent follow-up that guarantees the sustainable production of raw material, generating sufficient income to meet the farmers’ demands and socioeconomic needs.
9.Guarantee the marketing to producers with fair and competitive prices through long-term purchase and sale agreements.
10.Creation of a healthy and agreeable work environment with safety and hygiene conditions that allow the farmers and their families’ permanent motivation.
11.The incorporation of women and young people, offering tools for their integration since they are generally the margin of productive activities in most of the country’s coastal communities.
Thus, all these ingredients and the experiences that can be achieved in the near future through a community-based organization will serve as a fundamental basis for the sustainable development of Kappaphycus farming, causing a very positive socioeconomic impact in several regions of the Brazilian coast.
Miguel Sepulveda, Marine Biologist *