Kelp at hand for contaminated Japan as Rathlin feeds its big appetite for seaweed
A small island off the north Antrim coast has emerged as an unlikely potential supplier of edible seaweed to Japan, where stocks have been hit by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
A mother and son team from Rathlin, an island with a population of around 100, are trying to exploit the gap in the market caused by the contamination of the waters around the ruptured reactor.
Kate Burns and her son Benji McFaul are growing thousands of tonnes of kelp on ropes that extend out from the shoreline into the sea around Rathlin.
They have found conditions are optimum for growing the fine species used in traditional Japanese miso soup and the thicker variety used in noodle recipes.
"Due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, a lot of the seaweed production in that part of the world has been closed down," said Ms Burns.
"Combine that with the growth of the Asian population who eat seaweed, plus the growth in the European population now interested in seaweed, and sushi is a big growth market. We will be pursuing the European and Asian markets."
Ms Burns, who lived on Rathlin for 20 years before settling on mainland Co Antrim after a stint working at a marine science centre in the US, explained why the island was proving a great source of kelp. "The waters around the British Isles are particularly suitable because of the Gulf Stream as it means our temperatures are near optimum the year round," she said.
Having initially relied on natural spores in the water to spawn the seaweed plants on the ropes, the company has now set up a laboratory on the shore to germinate its own miniature kelp, before transferring them on to the ropes. The lab employs four Rathlin residents as technicians.
Ms Burns explained why the laboratory process was preferable.
"Growing from wild spores you end up with a mixture growing at different rates," she said.
The family venture – named Ocean Veg Ireland – has been supported by Stormont's business promotion agency Invest NI.
Kelp grows in underwater 'forests' and has a fast growth rate – up to half a metre a day. In Japan the edible seaweed is known as 'kombu', and it is used to flavour a variety of dishes. It's used in a soup stock, snacks and sushi. Despite kelp's popularity in East Asia, in north Antrim it is another seaweed that is eaten, dulse.