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  NATURAL RESOURCES  -  The virtues of seaweed

Although surprisingly little is known about seaweed, there is no doubting its value in fields as varied as medicine, agriculture, nutrition and environmental monitoring. Taking the Irish AlgaeBase scientific initiative as its inspiration, the Seaweed Africa project is currently compiling a vast databank centred on Africa. For a continent surrounded by oceans, this will provide a valuable tool for an improved identification and use of this natural resource which is in plentiful supply.

Gathering algae in Namibia.
Gathering algae in Namibia.
It was back in 1996 that the Martin Ryan Institute (National University of Ireland), which specialises in marine sciences, launched AlgaeBase. "The aim was to create, on the internet, a database devoted to algae. At first, the information was limited to species found in the British Isles,” explains Michael Guiry, one of the scientists who initiated the project. “But data on North-West Europe, then the North-West Atlantic and the Mediterranean were soon added.” This was followed by information on the freshwater cousins of these marine plants, resulting in an AlgaeBase of approximately 3 500 species that are described in detail, complete with classification (phylum, class, order, genus, family, species, etc.) and distribution as well as supporting drawings and photographs and references to leading articles published in renowned scientific journals.

Information search
Little is known about algae and their uses despite the fact that, if carefully selected and used, they can change the fortunes of coastal populations. Although Ireland is modest compared with the Asian market giants, the 45 000 tonnes of algae it harvests every year make a considerable socio-economic impact on the country’s west coast. As the African continent is surrounded by oceans and the cold water currents render its western coasts ideal for algae culture, it seemed logical to study its underwater plant life and to list and disseminate the data gathered. That is the aim of the SeaweedAfrica project launched in 2001. With a budget of around €999 000 and EU support, seven partners are contributing to its work (see facing page), with the Martin Ryan Institute as coordinator.

“AlgaeBase provides the principal data on species names and their distribution,” explains Irish researcher Roisin Nash. “The existing base therefore served as a launching pad. It was a question of developing it for the coasts of Africa, then adding information on the ecology, present or potential uses, growing and harvesting methods, etc.” Each partner is responsible for identifying a number of species and supplying the database with information on them. Researchers meet regularly to report on progress and set priorities. “These meetings have improved communication, especially between the African partners, by creating genuine links between them,” says Robert Anderson of Cape Town University. They are also the occasion to take stock of activities to date. 

Aquatic plants are useful plants 
“We have shown that the use of seaweed in medicine and pharmacy is fast expanding,” notes John J. Bolton, of the University of the Western Cape. “For example, we are testing one seaweed-based product for the treatment of immune deficiency caused by the Aids virus.” Algae are used in more than 200 different forms in health, agriculture, animal aquaculture, nutrition, thalassotherapy, environmental monitoring, cosmetics, etc. “This shows the importance of making this information available free of charge,” concludes John Bolton. An Internet site was launched in April 2003 with a country search function. For those without internet access, CD-ROM versions of the database will be distributed in those African countries bordering the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

  • Martin Ryan Marine Science Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (Ireland) - coordinator
  • University of Cape Town, in co-operation with the Marine and Coastal Management (South Africa)
  • University of the Western Cape and International Ocean Institute (South Africa)
  • University of Namibia
  • International Ocean Institute - East Africa (Kenya)
  • University of Stockholm (Sweden)
  • CIIMAR (Centro Interdisciplinar de Investigação Marinha e Ambiental), University of Porto (Portugal)