NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 14, 2008

Right off the white beaches of Butaritari, Kiribati, a remote Pacific atoll, corals are being covered and smothered to death by a bushy seaweed that is so tough even algae-grazing fish avoid it, says the New York Times.  The seaweed has taken over an area of about four miles long and a mile wide.

Butaritari is the latest victim of a 30-year global effort to encourage poor people in the coastal areas of the tropics to grow seaweed that produces carrageenan, an increasingly popular fat substitute used in the food industry, notably in ice cream, says the Times.

The result of introducing algae to foreign ecosystems has been failure -- or even worse, says the Times:

  • Since the first effort to cultivate algae in Kiribati in 1986, the seaweed industry has lost money almost every year.
  • The government of Butaritari forces the seaweed industry to pay farmers 60 cents a kilo; the industry lose 27 cents a kilo by the time the seaweed is shipped to the processing plant in the Philippines, some 3,000 miles away.
  • Dead coral stops supporting the ecosystem and, within a couple of decades, will crumble into rubble, allowing large ocean waves to destroy the flimsy thatched huts of the Micronesians located on the beach.
  • Even worse, the biggest losses were being felt by the most vulnerable -- those who use nets in the shallow coral table and do not have the boats required to fish farther away.

Jennifer E. Smith of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, says this is one of the most damaging seaweeds she has ever seen.  The entire reef will likely be destroyed, unless a major effort is undertaken to remove the seaweed from the lagoon. 

Source: Christpher Pala, "Corals, Already in Danger, Are Facing a New Threat From Farmed Algae," New York Times, July 8, 2008.

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