Researchers tap into potential of green seaweed in Tauranga

Seaweed biologist Dr Marie Magnusson at the new seaweed cultivation facility in Tauranga.
Seaweed biologist Dr Marie Magnusson at the new seaweed cultivation facility in Tauranga. Photo credit: Supplied

An aquaculture project is tapping into the potential of green seaweed by exploring ways of turning the sea pest into food and agricultural products.

A new state-of-the-art aquaculture facility providing infrastructure for seaweed cultivation from nursery stages to grow-out opened in Tauranga this week.

The project is led by seaweed biologist Dr Marie Magnusson, alongside seaweed chemist Dr Christopher Glasson, ecologist Rebecca Lawton, and a team of research fellows, technical officers and postgraduate students.

Dr Magnusson said recurring blooms of green seaweed (sea lettuce) in Tauranga's harbour are usually viewed as being a pest. However, there is hope the species could actually be exploited to provide a lucrative industry for the Bay of Plenty. 

"We're exploring ways of using sea lettuce to develop food and agricultural products," said Dr Magnusson.

Seaweed is a multi-billion dollar industry in Asia - particularly red and brown seaweed - but the potential of green seaweed has yet to be fully explored.

"Sea lettuce has been our primary focus due to its abundance in our region, its amenability to cultivation and its fascinating bioactive properties. Previous research in Australia has shown a similar species had cardiovascular and weight management benefits in obese rats," said Dr Magnusson.

Dr Glasson said the new facility will also help the research team study the bioactive properties of sea lettuce (ulva).

"Ulva can enhance the immune system to fight off infections and different diseases, but it can also enhance the immune system of plants against plant diseases, which can ultimately reduce the need for insecticides and pesticides in agriculture," he said.

"A range of other products derived from sea lettuce, including biochar and nanocellulose composites, can be used to contribute to net carbon sequestration, reducing New Zealand's carbon footprint."

The new facility was funded by Tertiary Education Commission's Entrepreneurial Universities programme and the University of Waikato as part of a $13 million algal biotechnology research project.