Seaweeds of Sacred Rameswaram

Pamban Island is located between peninsular India and Sri Lanka and is the largest island in Tamil Nadu, famous for its pilgrimage town of Rameswaram. Adi Shankara who is credited with establishing the Hindu doctrine of ‘Advaita’ philosophy defined the Char Dham (meaning: four abodes) as a set of four pilgrimage sites Badrinath, Dwaraka, Puri and Rameswaram that encourages Hindus to visit during one’s lifetime in an endeavor to achieve moksha(salvation).

Hence Rameswaram is widely known as a sacred site and is important as a fishing hub, is also the hometown of late President APJ Abdul Kalam and historically known for being the first port of arrival for Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka during the civil war that ended in 2006.

Natural seaweeds of Rameswaram :

Seaweeds are a group of algae found floating and submerged in marine ecosystems. Many of the rocky beaches, mudflats, estuaries, coral reefs and lagoons along the Indian coast provide ideal habitats for the growth of seaweeds. There are about 900 species of green seaweed, 4,000 red species and 1,500 brown species found in India.

In Rameswaram waters , apart from fishing , seaweed farming is a viable and sustainable livelihood opportunity for around 1,200 coastal families who are involved in seaweed harvesting and cultivation. Rameswaram is turning up as a role model for seaweed cultivation, which globally has become the fastest-growing sector of food production, increasing by 8% every year.

Seaweeds are super plants with a spectrum of uses .

Seaweeds as food :

Seaweeds are a rich source of dietary fiber, minerals like calcium, iodine, iron etc. , has high protein content and good omega fatty acids that are an excellent nutritional source of food. It is the culinary delicacy in traditional Japanese and Chinese foods and Chinese utilizes highest seaweed species in their diet than any other ethnic group in the world. Seaweeds are popularly eaten in many ways : Seaweed chips are crunchy and a healthier alternative to potato chips. Kombucha is a popular sweetened black or green tea drink made from brown seaweed(kelp) . In Korea, seaweed soup is served on birthdays and to women after childbirth. Japanese sushi rolls are wrapped with seaweed to hold the rice and fillings and is a very popular dish around the world.

Seaweeds in Industrial Use :

Some of the most important extracts from seaweeds are agar-agar , alginates & carrageenan and find extensive use in pharmaceuticals, cosmetic creams, paper and cardboard, and processed foods.. The greatest use of agar is in association with food preparation and in the pharmaceutical industry as a laxative or as an outer cover of capsules – which earlier used gelatin from animal cells to coat medicinal capsules.(vegetarian options indeed!)

Seaweeds as biofuel :

The carbohydrate content of seaweed, about 50% of its dry mass, can be used in biofuel production and an annual harvest of 500 million dry tons of seaweeds with 50% carbohydrate content can produce about 1.25 billion MWh( Megawatt hours) worth of methane or liquid fuel that can compensate 1.5% of energy from fossil fuels like coal.

Seaweed as crop bio-stimulants :

The extracts from brown seaweeds as plant growth stimulant is gaining momentum for sustainable agricultural productivity and shown to improve the yield of several crops by over 20% including durum wheat, pulses and oilseeds. The bio-stimulants are capable of enriching soil moisture and shown to reduce the diminution in maize crop yield under drought stress, reduce fungal rot in tomatoes , resistance to pests , healthier fruits to name a few.

Seaweeds as a carbon sink to combat climate change :

Like other plants , as seaweeds grow in ocean waters, they absorb and store carbon dioxide in the oxygen-depleted seabed and also decompose much slower than on land. Carbon trapped in the dead plant material remains buried for several years act as a carbon capture mechanism that helps mitigate climate change by reducing acidification of oceans and supplying oxygen to the waters.

In conclusion :

Rameswaram has set a good example for seaweed cultivation to be sustainable , helped create an alternative livelihood for the coastal community as well as providing additional women employment and improving their quality of life.

Out of the global seaweed production of ~ 27 million tons fresh weight, China produces ~50 %, Philippines around 30%  followed by Indonesia, whereas India is having a mere share of less than 1%. India needs to increase its participation in the seaweed aquaculture journey, and we must perhaps provide it a more prominent place in our food plates by including seaweeds in our Indian diets as its nutrition and medicinal value far outweigh other land plants . Try out this interesting Indian masala recipe using seaweeds that may tempt us to eat more of this healthy plant !

Seaweed cultivation in Rameswaram(Picture credit : Alamy)

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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