KOTA KINABALU: Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) is trying out the mini estate concept to boost seaweed production that may help Malaysia emerge as a global seaweed producer.

The projects are now under trial in Semporna as location seen most suitable as it is part of the Coral Triangle encompassing leading seaweed producers Indonesia and the Philippines. UMS School of Science and Technology Assoc Prof Dr Suhaimi Md Yasir said phase one of the project will stretch over 2,000ha and should yield about one to five million metric tonnes of seaweed per year.

“We will try to achieve this figure, which has a value of about US$130mil (RM404.3m)”, he said. UMS is in the Malaysian Seaweed Development Industry Steering Committee chaired by the Fisheries Department.

“In phase one, we look at the database including oceanography, water quality for that area and so on.

Mass producer: UMS has developed mini estate concept to boost seaweed production that might see Malaysia edging out some of the present global producers.

“Because when you have the database, it is easy for the investors to come in. They know the water quality, area, topography and weather pattern. “How you manage the nursery for the seedling collection is very important in maintaining growth rate and quality”, said Suhaimi.

Phase two is from 2011 to 2015 (10th Malaysia Plan), covering not only Sabah but Sarawak and the Peninsula too. The seaweed planting trial has been conducted in Langkawi and Terengganu as well. Suhaimi added while phase one of the project is about capacity building among others, the second phase will aim for national development, meaning seaweed becomes a commodity.

“It will no longer be small-scale but involves 50,000 to 100,000ha with a production target of about 200,000 to 300,000 metric tonnes per year.

“We want the private sector and government-linked companies to be involved. We also want to nurture small and medium scale entrepreneurs in this field. We work on the quality.”

Towards the end, UMS had enlisted the collaboration of the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda).

Even now, a company founded by Salleh Mohd Salleh in 2009, with a few foreign investors and Tawau-based Tacara Sdn Bhd are producing and exporting 500 metric tonnes of seaweed produce per month.

UMS Marine Science graduate Japson Wong, 25, from Kota Kinabalu is also a participant in the mini estate concept.

His interest in seaweed aquaculture was sparked by experience while doing field work in Banggi under Prof Dr Mohd Rizuan Nordin and further exposure to seaweed farming during his industrial training. He applied through the Sabah Fisheries Department to be included in the Graduate Farmers Programme.

By April 2009, he was already in Pulau Omadal, where he and 21 other participants, including four women from Lahad Datu, Keningau and Kota Kinabalu were allotted two hectares each, a house and the necessary tools to start their respective project.

“When we started we encountered a lot of problems. Bad weeds were growing because the area was quite shallow”, he said.

The unwanted weeds affected growth rate. Progress was slow and to make matters worse, the seaweed would sometimes just drop into the sea. There is also that seasonal challenge – the north and south winds. “The north wind is good because the waves it creates contains the nutrients that nourish the seaweeds,” said Wong.

Wong realised it is a tedious endeavour which will not make him rich in the near future, but the thought that he will eventually prosper from all the hard work keeps him going. At present, Indonesia is the leading producer of seaweed with an output of 150,000 metric tonnes in 2009 having overtaken the Philippines which could only manage 100,000 metric tonnes.

Presently, Malaysia is placed insignificantly under ‘others’ accounting for just five percent. World demand is expected to reach 400,000 metric tonnes by 2012.

Indonesia has indicated it would ban raw seaweed export by that time, hence Malaysia’s necessity to increase productivity, in order to cater for export and domestic needs. The Coral Triangle is capable of supplying 80% of the world demand with the kappaphycus seaweed, known for its thickening and gelling properties, that can be found in abundance.

It is a major source of carrageenan, a colloidal substance chiefly used as an emulsifying and stabilizing ingredient in foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. — Bernama