Earlier this month I completed a four day course on seaweed farming held right here in Placencia and presented by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Belize Women’s Seaweed Farmers Association. I’ve always been interested in aquaculture. I remember reading about hydroponics being the “future of farming” when I was in high school and I thought that was just about the coolest and cleverest thing) and I’m obsessed with our local seaweed, it’s many uses and purported health benefits (see this post on my experimental consumption and results), so when I saw the opportunity to apply for a spot in this training- I jumped on it!
In typical Megan fashion, I let my excitement get the better of me and once I submitted my application I went down a Google wormhole about mariculture. This was back in March. I read about the latest technology (hectare, fully automated farms off the coast of California), and small grant-funded initiatives in coastal communities (like an experimental warm-water oyster farm in Jamaica), and of course about the current leaders in the market (Indonesia is our biggest competition, their production is huge but the quality isn’t nearly as high as ours). I was super stoked and anxious to hear if I was accepted to the training. Well, life has a certain way of pumping my breaks because after receiving my application… they promptly ghosted me. For months. Literally. I didn’t hear a word from them until a WhatsApp message at 6:30 the night before the training asking me if I’d be attending. I sort of got the feeling that I was their very last choice of participant but they needed to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill seats in the training and to hit the grant requirement minimums. No matter! You know I showed up as enthusiastic a student as they could hope for.
We spent three days in the “classroom,” which was really Cozy Corner’s restaurant, learning about the history and practices of the Placencia Seaweed cultivators. Belizeans have been wildly sourcing seaweed for generations, but proper cultivation only began about a decade or so ago with the Godfrey brothers and a few other mindful fisherfolk keen on making their harvest sustainable. It appears that TNC is helping to encourage responsible seaweed farming as an alternative or supplementation to the livelihood of fisherfolk. As our waters present fewer stocks of fish and more and more restrictions are put on commercial fishers, alternative means of income have to be explored. The GOB has to be invested in alternative solutions at this point because the Blue Bond agreement we’ve made to settle some of the country’s debt will take even more territories away from fishermen. I learned in this training that Belize doesn’t have the legislature for mariculture yet, but I think this is something that will be fast tracked in the next couple of years as another piece of all the Blue Bond implementations. As it stands now, you can obtain your license to start a seaweed farm (leasing the plot in the ocean, harvesting seedlings from the wild I guess?) only through a science and research grant. I didn’t fully understand that part.
We talked a lot about site selection and how the water has to be the right depth and temperature and have the proper flow of current, and it can’t be near any contaminants (like fertilizer run-off from farms or soak away from septics) and it can’t be near any coral reef (because bits could break off and escape your farm then attach to the reef and change the ecosystem there) and you wouldn’t want to pick a place with a lot of “grazers” (certain types of fish and crabs and sea turtles I guess but I don’t really know how you would determine where these grazers would be prevalent- seems like a build-it-they-will-come sorta situation). The ideal sites seem to be 6-10 feet depth and near a private caye that provides a campsite for a caretaker, because in addition to grazing fish and turtles, you also have to worry about pirates thieving your crop… cripes! We spent two days working with materials and mock building a farm set up of our own. I learned how to tie some cool knots and I burnt the hell out of my fingers (and tragically, a spot on my inner thigh oddly enough). On the final day we took a boat trip out to the farm site near Ray Caye to plant our cultivation lines and string them up in the existing grid.
What I learned from this course is that I’m shit at tying knots (but I’m good at picking up all the little bits that break off or drop from the lines- my foraging skills are as strong in the sea as they are on land), and I’ll probably never become a seaweed farmer myself because I don’t have a boat or an island and the return on investment just isn’t there LOL. The opportunity I do possibly see is partnering with the Women’s Co-op on a aqua-agro-tourism endeavor here in Placencia… or more accurately, just off the sandy shore of Placencia beach.
Okay okay, hear me out! People are becoming more health conscious and they are also getting more curious about where their food comes from. Agrotourism is a growing trend and Belize has the capacity to be a leader in that particular tourism sector; we already have the banana farm tours (now defunct but could easily make a comeback), bean-to-bar cacao tours, and Copalli Rum’s Distillery tour. Placencia could have our own seaweed farm tour that doesn’t involve an hour long boat ride each way and a bunch of stooges splashing through and contaminating your actual seaweed farm. We could build a small-scale (perhaps a 20 by 20 foot plot) replica of a seaweed farm just off the beach here, or perhaps on the shallow side of Placencia Caye, purely for education purposes–to show tourists the types of seaweed Belize cultivates and how. Obviously the seaweed we grow directly off our beach wouldn’t be any good for consumption (but it might be okay for spa treatments- how fun would a seaweed jelly bath be?!?!) but tour guides could take people by kayak or snorkel for a quick 2-hour tour. Talk about the seaweed trade, health components, show them how its grown, harvested, dried, processed, then end with a delicious seaweed shake (made from the properly farmed seaweed not the icky educational purpose seaweed).
BOOM! If people have a complaint about Placencia’s tourism it is that you have to LEAVE Placencia to do almost everything worthwhile. Almost all our tour offerings involve an hour or two commute, they’re full day commitments, and usually $100usd per person or more. Placencia needs more entertainment options here that aren’t bars. A museum, an aquarium, a trolley tour… we have none of it. This could be a stellar supplement to the Belize Women’s Seaweed Farmers Association; a way to make money from tours while educating on and marketing their raw product. PLUS… it would have a positive impact on our water quality in popular swimming areas because seaweed is a natural filter. We’re not near coral reef but if we wanted to ensure our seaweed didn’t spread from the farm it would be simple to enclose it with chicken wire or the underwater equivalent because it will be such a small grid anyway. I bet at least 50% of the week-long tourists the peninsula sees would take this half-day tour if it were under $50 pp and easy to book either ahead of time through the co-op’s website or in-person just before it begins. Make it super approachable for all activity levels: have a floating dock they can stand on and look down from or hang onto while snorkeling, if they just want to paddle over top the farm in a kayak they don’t even need to get wet. This would probably be the only way I could enter the seaweed farming business- if it were right here off our beach in the agrotourism realm.
So that’s my latest and greatest idea for eco-tourism in Southern Belize… way more achievable than my dream of a sea turtle farm (but I still stand by that idea- that would be a total game changer for Belize). Here’s a news clip