A small island off the north coast of Ireland has emerged as an unlikely potential supplier of edible seaweed to Japan – a country whose own stocks have been hit by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
A mother and son team from Rathlin, an isolated island with a population of around 100, are trying to exploit the gap in the market caused by the contamination of the waters around the ruptured reactor.
Kate Burns and her son Benji McFaul are growing thousands of tonnes of kelp on ropes that extend out from the shoreline into the sea around Rathlin.
They have found conditions are optimum for growing the fine species used in traditional Japanese miso soup and the thicker variety used in noodle recipes.
“Due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, a lot of the seaweed production in that part of the world has been closed down,” said Ms Burns.
“Combine that with the growth of the Asian population who eat seaweed, plus the growth in the European population who now are interested in seaweed, and sushi is a big growth market.”
She added: “So we will be pursuing the European and Asian markets.”
Ms Burns, who lived on Rathlin for 20 years before settling on mainland Co Antrim after a stint working at a marine science centre in the US, explained why the island was proving a great source of kelp.
“The waters around the British Isles are particularly suitable because of the Gulf Stream as it means our temperatures are near optimum the year round,” she said.
“But especially round Rathlin – Rathlin is a very strong tidal place and kelp like strong tides. If the tides are too strong the kelp gets too coarse, but there are places in Rathlin where the tides are ideal, between one and two knots.”
She said the waters are all but free of minuscule organisms that harm seaweed.
Having initially relied on natural spores in the water to spawn the seaweed plants that grow on the ropes, the company has now set up a laboratory on the shore to germinate their own miniature kelp, before transferring them on to the ropes.
The lab employs four Rathlin residents as technicians.
Ms Burns explained why the laboratory process was preferable.
“Growing from wild spores you end up with a mixture growing at different rates,” she said.
The family venture – named Ocean Veg Ireland – has been supported by Stormont’s business promotion agency Invest Northern Ireland.
The business has received Invest NI backing towards research, marketing and website development and has benefited from its Innovation Vouchers to test various methods of processing, preserving and packaging the kelp.