Uist Asco: reviving the traditional art of seaweed harvesting

How reviving the traditional art of seaweed harvesting is set to breathe new life into an old industry – while providing much needed jobs and economic growth in the remote community of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

We have a plentiful supply of seaweed combined with a good premises, the right technologies and strong, relevant expertise. We’re committed to making the necessary investments to ensure the local seaweed industry prospers.

Jim Keogh, Europe Director, Strategic Affairs

REVIVING A TRADITIONAL INDUSTRY

The remote Outer Hebrides on the far west of Scotland has a long and proud history of harvesting seaweed. In the 1980s, it was a common sight on the coasts of Uist to see seaweed being harvested, ready to be shipped to Girvan for use in the alginate industry. This practice gradually died out as synthetic alginate was discovered.

Now, thanks to the vision of Ragnall Maclain and his family, this old tradition is being revived. The family founded Uist Asco to harvest local, naturally grown seaweed and gently dry it using woodchip from its own forest, for use in both plant and animal feed.

Canadian bio-tech company Acadian Seaplants Limited acquired Uist Asco in summer 2017, seeing its great potential and the synergies between the two companies.

Acadian Seaplants is the largest independent manufacturer of marine plant products of its type in the world. Its main focus being the sustainable harvesting and processing of wild seaweeds.

“Uist Asco will complement Acadian Seaplant’s work perfectly, as well as Arramara Teoranta, our Irish seaweed harvesting operation,” explains Jim Keogh, Europe Director, Strategic Affairs, Arramara Teoranta.

“It’s fairly early days, but Ragnall and his family have laid the foundations for a strong, successful business. And, in fact, Ragnall has stayed on with us as Resource Manager.

“The premises are ideal – we have a large yard of around two acres that’s suitable for industrial use, a disused quarry, and a forest of over 200 acres that they planted 20 to 25 years ago.

"We plan to use wood from the forest as biomass to power the boiler which uses water from a nearby loch to create the heat to dry ascophyllum nodosum – the seaweed – harvested from within a ten-mile radius by local cutters.

"The Maclains also negotiated a lifetime lease with the estate to harvest seaweed. So, everything's in place."

TURNING SEAWEED INTO A THRIVING BUSINESS

The roots have been sewn for Uist Asco to succeed. But getting it right and operating at full capacity is not as simple as it might seem. Which is why the engineering expertise, specialist knowledge and financial strength of Acadian Seaplants is essential.

“The theory behind seaweed harvesting is simple. Basically, you collect the seaweed, you chop it, you dry it, and then you process it into seaweed meal or powder,” says Jim.

“But it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds and there are many factors involved – technical, engineering and therefore financial.

"Acadian Seaplants is one of the few companies in the world with the people, the experience and the engineering expertise to do this.

"We’re already sharing people and expertise from Acadian. We’ve brought over an experienced plant manager from Canada to help things get going.

“We’ve spent the last few months getting the plant to work as it should. There’s still a lot to do, but we’re now beginning to move to a point where the company should begin to ramp up.

"We need to build a harvest structure. There are a number of ways of harvesting the seaweed, and there are environmental considerations, too. Acadian Seaplants plans to invest in ways of making it more efficient.”

A VITAL AND EVOLVING RESOURCE

Jim says, “Seaweed can be used for both animal and plant health, with the most efficient use as a biostimulant spray for agriculture, for areas such as the fruit industry or for crops.

"It’s a natural, organic, non-chemical and it gets results. It can also be used as animal feed.

“As for the product from Uist Asco, we’re not certain yet exactly where we’ll go with it. The product will be fed into the general market when we’re up and running – we’ll see where it fits best. It's an evolving industry."

Part of the local community

Jim continued, “Uist Asco is an exciting company and, although in world terms it may be small, it’s significant on Uist. The seaweed here is a very important natural resource, which we intend to sustainably harvest to the benefit of the community.

"We’re going to be working with local resources and using local people, and will be growing fairly rapidly. Our first hire was a resource scientist, who was actually a local from the island with a degree in marine biology.

"It’s not just about direct employment, either. We’ll also need at least ten full-time or 20 part-time harvesters, which will provide an income or supplementary income for families – and this also fits with crofting system on the islands.

“Acadian Seaplants is recognised globally for community engagement in the areas where its employees work and live. As Uist Asco develops, our role in the community will also grow. For example, we would work with local schools to encourage students to take a study path to allow them to remain in – or come back to – the islands.”

The holy grail of seaweed is to find compounds that have health properties. Acadian Seaplants has around 30 scientists looking to isolate important compounds in seaweeds, and there are lots of breakthroughs happening. We’ll use that knowledge across all of our operations, including on Uist.”

Jim Keogh, Europe Director, Strategic Affairs

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