China’s uncontrollable demand for brown algae is causing overexploitation of this vital resource in Chile and Peru, destroying the region’s kelp forests, science journalism platform Historias sin Fronteras indicated in its May report, Underwater Deforestation.
Algae are the marine lungs of the earth. “Sixty percent of the oxygen generated on the planet is through marine algae,” Paul Baltazar, head of the Marine Crops Research Laboratory at Peru’s Scientific University of the South, told Diálogo on June 30. “Their overexploitation causes a drastic decrease of seafood and fish on our tables. These plants maintain the biodiversity of aquatic species and act as fertilizers.”
Underwater forests “are the nurseries of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans, as well as one of the world’s main carbon sinks,” Colombian daily El Tiempo reported on June 11.
Ninety-eight percent of the seaweed taken from Peru is exported to China. Interest in seaweed lies in its high alginate content, used in the food and cosmetics industry. According to Mexican platform Aristegui Noticias, uncontrolled seaweed extraction mainly takes place in Ica and Arequipa.
The increase in exports can be attributed to two factors: First is the willingness of seaweed harvesters to pick as much seaweed as possible, as long as the price is profitable. Second, companies process and export the algae regardless of their legal or illegal provenance, he added.
Hunger for the future
This expansion has led to an increase in the number of companies specializing in the collection, drying, and chopping of seaweed. There were two major exporters in 2002, but more than 10 by 2005. Today, there are more than 176 companies.
The main drivers of algae extraction are Chinese-owned industries. “They are not transparent companies; they hire many algae farmers and harvesters to extract the resource,” Baltazar said. “When we reach overexploitation the Chinese will leave, they will move elsewhere, and we will be left hungry [and without oxygen] for the future.”
According to Aristegui Noticias, the main seaweed exporters are Algas Sudamérica SAC and Globe Seaweed International SAC. These two Chinese-owned companies account for two-thirds of the Peruvian market, although neither of them has registered marine plants with Peru’s Ministry of Production.
Globe Seaweed, the most active, is involved in questionable practices. Since it began operations in 2005 it has shipped more than 191,000 tons of seaweed to China and has been subject to seven sanctions imposed by the Ministry of Production, Historias Sin Fronteras reported.
The sanctions are due to reporting false or incomplete information about its operations, obstructing the work of inspectors, carrying out fishing activities without authorization, and processing seaweed without certificates of origin, the journalism platform reported.
One such malpractice took place in 2016. Tax authorities seized 34 containers full of seaweed, which were about to be loaded onto ships for export. That same year, the government took actions against the company’s warehouses yet again, seizing 13 tons of seaweed that did not have certificates of provenance.
“Corruption is terrible, in the end it leads us to collapse,” Baltazar said. “We are facing unfair competition for social organizations dedicated to the passive collection of brown macroalgae. If they respect the rules, they know that if they exploit the resource too much they will have difficulties.”
The algae business has been flourishing in Peru since the early 2000s, making it the second largest exporter of this product in Latin America, behind only Chile, Historias Sin Fronteras reported.
Chile, which ranks among the top 10 seaweed exporting countries, harvests around 300,000 tons of huiro seaweed per year. Ninety percent of the plant is shipped dried and chopped to China, Historias Sin Fronteras added.
In recent years, seizures of illegally harvested seaweed have increased significantly. While authorities seized 467 tons in 2020, in 2022 that number reached 531 tons.
Reducing the pressure
“We have complete packages to [legally] develop seaweed farming,” said Baltazar, who participated in the creation of the Seaweed Stringing System, to have seaweed farming units ready to plant in the sea. “We must encourage communities to develop this activity to reduce the pressure of illegal seaweed harvesting.”
He also pointed out that they are looking to talk to companies, including Chinese ones, to install cultivation lines at an industrialized level, and to allow them to follow up and monitor to obtain information and transform it into control statistics.
“Any company that engages in overexploitation of seaweed or buyers that incentivize illegal practices should be sentenced for not implementing adequate rules for the extraction of brown algae,” Baltazar concluded.