University of Hawaii-Hilo seaweed expert Karla McDermid recently looked over some preserved samples in preparation for tomorrow's international conference on the sea plants.

Seaweed group explores
ocean of possibilities

International experts will gather
at UH-Hilo for a workshop

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> Seaweed is in your ice cream, your chocolate milk, your paint, your beer. Seaweed is in the glop your dentist uses to make impressions of your teeth.

Despite seaweed extracts being in products all around us, not many botanists study commercial seaweeds.

Starting tomorrow, 30 Pacific Basin seaweed experts from Thailand to Chile will gather at the University of Hawaii-Hilo for a weeklong workshop on economically valuable species.

Those 30 represent a major portion of all the commercial seaweed botanists in the Pacific, says Karla McDermid, a marine science professor at UH-Hilo.

"It's not the same (numbers) as fish people or coral people. In general, seaweeds have been overlooked," McDermid said.

Looking was what led McDermid to seaweeds. "I'm nearsighted, so fish move too fast," she said. "Algae stay put."

She was also encouraged by her professor at Stanford University, Isabella Abbott, 82, who began learning about seaweeds from her Hawaiian schoolteacher (who was also her mother) as a child on Oahu.

Tomorrow's workshop is Abbott's ninth, which she has put on every two years, since starting on Guam in 1984.

The workshops have focused on classifying seaweeds, Abbott said. But they are also intended to train younger scientists and to find seaweeds with commercial uses.

People have been finding uses for seaweeds for at least 10,000 years, the age of seaweed found in a Japanese archaeological site, McDermid said.

The Chinese used it as a flavor enhancer in 2000 B.C., and Romans were using it as fertilizer in 300 A.D.

Perhaps the first seaweed extract was agar, a substance with an Indonesian name although it probably originated in China, McDermid said.

A new extract, alginate, was discovered in 1880. A third, carrageenin, came into use in the 1940s.

The extracts make food stick together without adding calories. When McDonald's took the fat out of beef to make McLean burgers, they added carrageenin to keep patties from falling apart, McDermid said.

Chocolate used to settle to the bottom of chocolate milk until carrageenin was added.

Seaweed extracts by themselves cannot be digested by humans.

Some seaweed, such as nori, used to make sushi, is farmed, but much is still harvested from the sea.

How much stress this is putting on wild species is not clear. In 1993, alginate use was growing 10 percent to 30 percent per year. When McDermid visited Nha Trang, Vietnam, she found reefs with absolutely no seaweed because it was all harvested for food.

In Hawaii, limu manauea, better know by the Japanese name ogo, was once common. Now it is only found in secret places, McDermid said. It is also farmed.

The Legislature has responded by making it illegal to take the "holdfasts" of male ogo or to take any female ogo, the ones with the red bumps.

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