Why is seaweed important

Seagrass meadowsThe nursery of the seas

The small bay with the white sandy beach on the Philippine island of Mindoro with its palm-leaf-roofed stilt huts is at first glance a picturesque place that seems to fulfill all South Sea dreams. But the idyll is deceptive.

"Ten or 20 years ago, you could catch fish two or three kilometers off the coast. Today fishermen have to go out to sea for ten hours to find the fish that used to be very close by."

Patricio Poblador is the district chairman of the Tayamaan Township. The 55 year old is very worried about the future of the people here. There are many reasons why fish stocks are declining: overfishing, environmental pollution, climate change. These are all factors that are far beyond the control of small fishermen. But the coastal inhabitants are also directly responsible for the fact that they hardly catch anything: They collect seaweed.

"That is the habitat of the small fish and their food. If there is no seaweed, where should the fish grow? If the small fish have no more space, where should the big fish come from that feed us?"

A ban is of little use if the context is not clear

The seagrass meadows are the nursery of the seas. Many species lay their eggs here, young fish hide from predators between the long stalks. Sea turtles and manatees also need the seagrass meadows for grazing. But all over the world there is less and less seaweed. In the North and Baltic Seas, over-fertilization of seaweed is a problem. In the Mediterranean, on the other hand, the rapid warming of the water causes the seagrass areas to shrink. And: seaweed is a sought-after raw material.

"Traders come to us asking our people to collect seaweed. The traders have told me that the seaweed is processed into animal feed and fertilizer in China. Some types of seaweed are also used as raw materials for cosmetics and medicines."

Dead seaweed washed up on the beach has always been used as fodder and fertilizer. The coastal dwellers also dive after it to harvest it fresh as a salad. That was never a problem for the holdings. But now the algae * are traded on a large scale.

"I know of one case where a truck was confiscated with a dry weight of eleven tons. That is a lot for dried algae *."

David Bellhoff works for GIZ, the German Society for International Development Cooperation. The uncontrolled gathering of seaweed has been banned in the Philippines since 2014. But a ban is of little use if people are not clear about the context. In fact, many coastal inhabitants do not even know how important the seaweed is for their survival. This is exactly where GIZ comes in.

"Among other things, we have developed a campaign, together with the local universities, where the aim is to educate teachers a little better on environmental issues so that they can pass this on to their students."

Offer alternatives

Other awareness-raising campaigns are aimed directly at fishermen. Such events have also been held in Tayamaan Township. It was an eye opener for the people in the small village.

"People are beginning to understand the connections. When they gathered the seaweed, they didn't think about the future. Now that they understand the damage they have done, they are very unhappy about it."

But despite all understanding - people have to live on something and there are hardly any fish left. In order for Patricio Poblador to enforce the new law on the protection of seagrass meadows, he has to offer alternatives.

"I have a small budget from which I can give people interest-free loans so that they can buy chickens or cows or intensify their farming."

If the villagers have other sources of income, they will leave the seaweed alone, the community leader hopes. And if everything goes well, one day they will catch fish again off their coast - thanks to the seagrass meadows.

* What is meant is seaweed, which was erroneously referred to as algae in the manuscript (editor's note)