Underwater investment banks

By Dr. Nick Hill

A seaweed farmer pulls his crop into an outrigger boat.

A seaweed farmer pulls his crop into an outrigger boat.

As the island village of Guindacpan slides into view, we see raised bamboo platforms tumbling out from shore. Squatting and seated cross-legged atop these platforms are men and women, young and old. They sort huge piles of straggly red and green “weeds” to dry in the sun. This is seaweed – currently one of the most important economic resources for people on Danajon Bank.

We’re immediately surrounded by children who’ve spotted Claudio’s and Mike’s cameras. They’re incredibly excited by the prospect of getting their photo taken and strike instinctive poses. If we were here to document only the people of Danajon Bank, our job would certainly be very easy! Too bad the fish don’t pose so easily.

It’s mesmerizing to watching the villagers deftly sort the seaweed. The plants grown here unusual-looking, more like a branching gelatinous substance that easily snaps in your hand than the tough fronds that most of us are used to. But we’re more familiar with the species grown here than we may think. Once sun-dried, it’s sold to local traders who ship it to Cebu City, where in large factories it’s turned into a substance called ‘carrageenan.’

Inspecting the harvest.

Inspecting the harvest.

But something tells us that won’t be a problem. With a price of around P10-50 per kg (depending on species), even the smallest frond is valuable. Everything is gathered up and sold. Seaweed is an important source of income for fishers who these days, thanks to overfishing, often struggle to catch enough fish for their families that day.

As we explore the seaweed farm, we notice loads of small to medium sized danggit and kitong hanging around near the seaweed farmers, grazing on whatever comes their way. These rabbitfishes (family Siganidae) are a locally very important foodfish that have been heavily exploited. But in these de facto marine protected areas the juveniles appear to be thriving.

Entire communities, including children and the elderly, work together to sort the seaweed crops.

Entire communities, including children and the elderly, work together to sort the seaweed crops.

Carrageenan used an ingredient found in all sorts of products that we use daily: cosmetics, food and drinks (including some of the local Filipino beers we’re keen on), pharmaceuticals, shoe polish, and pet food, along with hundreds of other products. Seaweed farming began here on Danajon Bank back in the 1970s, and has been an important and growing livelihood ever since, thanks to global demand for carrageenan. For many years, Philippines was the world’s largest producer of seaweed, and Danajon Bank one of the most productive areas. Now, Indonesia takes the crown.

To understand how the seaweed grows and where it comes from, we travelled on to Taglibas, an area of reef used by the people of a neighbouring village of Hambungan (we visited Hambungan earlier in the week). It’s difficult at first to spot the seaweed farm from the water, but a cluster of boats and a stretch of styrofoam gives the location away. Men and women on two boats are working hard to pull in the seaweed, trying to shake off some of the epiphytes as they work. It’s clear they’re nearing the end of their day’s labour, so we plunge straight into the crystal clear water and get to work.

Instantly we’re hit by two things. First, the sheer quantity of the seaweed, which sways in rows of long straggly pillars. Second, the amount of fish life hiding in and around the seaweed. As a farmer in goggles and wooden fins handles the crop, fronds break off and fall to the coral reef below. If too much seaweed ends up on the reef, blocking the sun, the corals will suffer.

Fronds covering corals beneath a seaweed farm. Left there, the plants can kill the corals by preventing sunlight from reaching them. 

Fronds covering corals beneath a seaweed farm. Left there, the plants can kill the corals by preventing sunlight from reaching them. 

And it isn’t just rabbitfishes that are hiding away in here. As Claudio and Mike carefully navigate their way through the maize of fronds to position themselves for the best shots of the seaweed farmers at work, we see parrotfishes, batfish, cardinalfish and a host of small juvenile fish scatter and regroup under different fronds.

Seaweed farming can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s an important livelihood; on the other, careless farming can damage the reefs below, with issues such as trampling and shading threatening benthic habitat. However, our overwhelming impression is that it is better than many of the destructive practices in use on Danajon Bank – especially blast fishing. At least there is life here! What we need is to improve planning of seaweed farming to ensure environmental impacts are limited.

A diver secures seaweed to a line.

A diver secures seaweed to a line.

The sheer quantity of seaweed on the two boats and the frenzied work of the seaweed farmers point towards the economic importance of seaweed. Fishing is like a cash machine in the sea – providing opportunities for instant cash returns. But with the high population densities and declining catches, it rarely provides enough income for a daily basis, and certainly no opportunities to build savings. Whereas seaweed farming functions more like an investment account.

The crop takes 40-50 days to grow, and growth is exponential. Assuming that there are no problems (e.g. typhoons, stealing), they aren’t plagued by a disease called ice-ice (baby), and they have the guts to leave it the full 40-50 days, returns on investment can be substantial. There are some very successful seaweed farmers here!

Not surprisingly, commercial companies have, on occasion, attempted set up operations on the reef. So far, none has been approved, and for good reason. The presence of large-scale operators would threaten the livelihoods of local people and likely result in even more overfishing. Increased protections for the whole of Danajon Bank will prevent this grim possibility, and give the people at least some security.