Seaweed harvesters work Maitland

Sustainable enterprise sees marine plants exported to Japan for food and medical industry

A member of the Taurus team collects seaweed on the Eastern Cape coast
A member of the Taurus team collects seaweed on the Eastern Cape coast
Image: Jonty McKay

What’s wet, green and brown and stretches from Port Elizabeth to Tokyo?

The answer is the seaweed being harvested in the Maitland River mouth area of the Bay for export to Japan.

A group of 40-odd harvesters has been camping in the area since the start of the end of the month-end spring tide and their presence has been attracting queries and concerns which have been raised on social media.

Department of Environment Forestry and Fisheries compliance station manager Dennis Mostert said on Tuesday the operation was legal and it did not damage the environment.

“Taurus, the company that employs the harvesters, has a permit, and they operate up and down the coast. They target two species of the red Gelidium seaweed and come to the Maitland site about four times a year for a period of 7-8 days at a time.”

“It’s scientifically approved and no damage occurs.

“It’s like mowing your grass. It grows right back. There is no bag limit but there is a long list of conditions including that the harvesters may only harvest using the hand-picking method.”

They were not allowed in any protected areas or where there was particular conflict with the local community, he said.

“They have supervisors and they are also inspected by officials from the department to ensure they do not at the same time poach any shellfish like limpets or ollykreukel.”

The permit included permission for the managers of the team to drive onto the beach where they were working, he said.

Taurus area manager Sharlene McLean said the company had been harvesting seaweed in the Eastern Cape for 30 years.

“It’s like farming. We rotate between the different sites to allow the seaweed to recover each time.”

She said the team operated between Kei River mouth in the east to Cape St Francis in the west and Taurus paid a rebate to the municipalities in the different areas.

The harvesting team comprised 35-45 people and most of them used to come from the rural Eastern Cape stemming from Taurus’s original base established in Chalumna in the old Ciskei as a development initiative. With the base now in East London the increase in fuel costs had forced the company to recruit from the workforce in the city, however.

The harvesters moved across the rocks at low tide and twisted just the top section of the seaweed off, she said.

“There’s been extensive research which has been reviewed by the department so it’s completely sustainable.”

One concern she had reported to the authority was that the seaweed in the Port Elizabeth area was not growing back the way it had done in previous years, she said.

“I believe this is related to pollution that has resulted from the new [Port of Ngqura] harbour and the extra shipping that it has brought in.”

The harvesters were paid per kilogramme and each day they carted what they had collected during low tide back to camp and dried there in the sun.

“At the end of a stint at any of the sites the harvest is trucked back to our East London warehouse where it’s sorted again to remove any impurities or bits of the wrong seaweed species that have crept in.

“Then it’s stacked in 100kg bales trucked back to PE and shipped off to Japan.”

Buyers there sold the seaweed as food and used it to produce various delicacies as well as a range of food stabilisers and gelling agents which were ingredients in everything from pet food to toothpaste and flavoured milk. They also turned it into agar, a valuable natural medium used to culture fungi and bacteria in medical laboratories.