April 11, 2018
By Haresh Deol
THE crystal clear waters off the coast of Semporna – with long straight lines of seaweed resembling lanes in an Olympic-sized swimming pool – will tempt many to jump off the boats and swim.
That pretty much sums up the breathtaking sight of the country’s largest seaweed farm.
Located in the Coral Triangle, Sabah is the third largest producer of the red seaweed (Rhodophyceae) species, Kappaphycus spp. and Eucheuma spp. in Southeast Asia – behind the Philippines and Indonesia respectively.
Malaysia is among 10 nations that contributed to 95 per cent of the world’s commercial seaweed volume (estimated at two million tonnes) in 2009.
The Coral Triangle encompasses the waters of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands.
In 2016, about 206,000 tonnes of seaweed (gross weight) worth RM44 million (wholesale data) was produced in Sabah.
Jasmin Habibu and Bustam Pakasa, based at Pulau Bum Bum, are among the over 4,000 farmers working on the 13,000-hectare seaweed cultivation area in Semporna, Kunak, Tawau and Lahad Datu.
“It’s good money,” was 47-year-old Jasmin’s immediate reaction when asked about the industry.
“We can get about RM4 per kg. But we know it is 10 times the original price when it hits the streets.”
The father of two, who has been in the business “for years” said it takes between four and six weeks to cultivate and harvest the seaweed.
“I have time to send my children to school before spending a few hours at sea to monitor the growth of the seaweed. In the evening, I’m at home with my family. I’m happy,” he added.
Bustam, 53, wished more people would enjoy seaweed, hoping a surge in demand would further push the prices of the sea vegetable.
“It’s a good trade to be in. Those interested should give it a try as Semporna is blessed with calm waters and plenty of sunlight … key factors to cultivate seaweed,” added the father of four.
Malaysia’s champion product
Agriculture and Agro-based Insdustry Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek was in Semporna for the Seaweed Splash 2018, held from March 30 to April 1,.
Ahmad Shabery himself made a splash as he and his officials jumped into the water to get a feel of the farming activity during their visit to a farm near Pulau Bum Bum.
But Ahmad Shabery’s visit was more than just creating awareness and committing to his political rounds.
“I want seaweed to join the country’s list of champion products, just like the Musang King (durian) and bird’s nest,” he said.
Seaweed cultivation in the country is not new. The challenge has always been to turn seaweed into an attraction – just like how Malaysians generally cannot seem to live without durian.
Rich in nutrients
The locals serve it in various ways – from stir fry to seaweed mac and cheese.
Zamzani Abdul Wahab, popularly known as Chef Zam, says seaweed is popular among the Chinese community. It is also seen as a cheaper alternative to bird’s nest given its nutritional value.
The sea vegetable contains a rich supply of minerals – calcium, copper, iodine and iron. It is also rich in protein, fibre, Vitamin K and folic acid while being low in calories and fat.
A 2011 review on the benefits of seaweed published in the American Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported it can be used to help lower blood pressure and is good for the heart.
“Seaweed is also used as a cosmeceutical and this is a lucrative market among the Malays,” Chef Zam added.
More research needs to be done
Maritime Institute of Malaysia researchers Cheryl Rita Kaur and Margaret Ang, had during the Seminar on Developing the Seaweed Aquaculture Sector in Malaysia on Oct 27, 2009, said: “Malaysia has the potential to be a major seaweed player in the region – infrastructure, manpower, product quality, transfer of technology, industrial support and marketing.”
But they also singled out several issues and challenges that must be addressed. These include pollution in production areas and poor crop management.
The locals, namely the Bajau Laut, while maintaining their unique nomadic lifestyle of living out at sea, have injected modernisation into their daily lives.
As such, used cans and packets of polystyrene are seen in the waters – something the local authorities will need to quickly address to ensure marine life will not be affected.
Hanafi Hussin and Abdullah Khoso, had in their paper ‘Seaweed Cultivation and Costal Communities in Malaysia: an Overview’ published in the Asian Fisheries Science journal last year, said women and children also take part in the cultivation activities, as seen in India.
Hanafi and Abdullah, however, pointed out: “The absence of accurate and precise data concerning seaweed cultivators may contribute to ill-informed policies and initiatives concerning the welfare and development of coastal communities and the seaweed sector as a whole. This aspect requires a detailed analysis for a deeper understanding of the impact of any such ill-informed policies on coastal communities engaged in seaweed.”
Also, are the farmers truly locals or made up mostly of migrants (documented or undocumented) from the Philippines and Indonesia?
Despite the challenges, the tone has been set for the seaweed industry to grow. Much attention must be given to ensure seaweed cultivation is further improved and turned into an attraction as part of agro-tourism.
This will hopefully see seaweed joining the likes of the Musang King and bird’s nest as Malaysia’s growing list of champion products.
Haresh Deol is a multi-award winning journalist. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @HareshDeol