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Dhaka Tribune

The untapped potential of seaweed and green mussels

Bangladesh alone has demand for $20 million worth of seaweed each year

Update : 17 Apr 2022, 10:14 AM

The cultivation of seaweed and green mussels is undergoing a silent revolution in the southeastern part of the country as demand for the seafood items is growing among restaurants.

Seaweed is a staple in the menu of several indigenous groups of the country and it is also instrumental in Japanese cuisine. Mussels are also a popular seafood item in many countries of the world.

Bangladesh’s coastal location gives the country a unique opportunity to cultivate high-quality seaweed and mussels to cater to both local and international demand.

Cox’s Bazar restaurant Salt Bistro & Café is one example of an establishment that has been taking advantage of the high-quality seafood available, with their signature seafood linguine having recently gained significant popularity. The fresh and exceptional mussels are a key part of what makes the dish a success.

Currently, seaweed and green mussels are being cultivated in around twelve locations of Cox’s Bazar, Teknaf and St Martins. Although local demand for the two items is growing, it is doing so slowly as the products are still seen as very niche.

However, the export potential of seaweed and green mussels is very high, with nearly $3 million being exported to countries in Asia and Latin America every year.

When indigenous knowledge meets business interests 

Seaweed is naturally found in the ocean of the country, especially on the coral island of St Martins. Indigenous communities of Cox’s Bazar, especially the Tanchangya, have consumed seaweed for generations

Commercial farming of seaweed and green mussels started in the country in 2014. According to experts, the weather of the country, temperature and salinity of the seawater make this area an ideal pasture for the cultivation of the two products. 

The correspondent visited a seaweed and green mussels farming project at Khurushkul union of the Moheshkhali Channel of Cox’s Bazar. The project is being implemented by WorldFish Bangladesh with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Bangladesh. Altogether, 14 seaweed plots and green mussel units each are being harvested in that zone. 

The diners who serve mussels usually import them from Italy, and local producers are aiming to capture this market.

Ujjal Banik, a master's student of Chattogram Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, is doing his thesis on this project. 

“These are very rich in protein, omega-3, fatty acid, minerals and vitamins, and antioxidant elements. These two products are used in very different foods, but they can be grown in the same place simultaneously,” he said. 

He added that September to March is the ideal cultivation period for seaweed. It takes only 15 days to turn into full-grown seaweed after the seaweed seedlings are tied to rope or net and placed in clean and stable saline water. 

On the other hand, green mussels are cultivated on floating rafts or long ropes between October and January. It takes around six months for them to grow, and one rope can yield up to 20kg of green mussels. 

After cultivation, 1kg of dry seaweed can be sourced out of 9kg of seaweed, whereas nearly 20-30% of the meaty portion can be extracted from each green mussel. 

Apart from funding, the USAID has trained farmers and established links with the market for the processing and distribution of these products. 

Manjurul Karim, 22, used to work as a fisherman like his ancestors. He was attracted to the aquatic farming sector due to its cost efficiency, relatively lower hardship, and potential for profits.

“I have been involved with this business for two years now. After being trained, we started farming here with the help of some organizations. Now, we sell per kg seaweed and green mussels for Tk 200-250. In one raft, we can grow about 300-400 kg of green mussels, which we can sell for around Tk 85,000. At first, we were experimenting but now we have started to count profits from our business,” said Manjurul. 

‘Bangladesh alone has a demand for $20 million worth of seaweed’

Falcon International works with the processing and distribution of these aquatic food products locally and abroad. They conducted a market survey from 2019-2021 where they found Bangladesh alone imports $20 million worth of seaweed every year for various industries, including medicine, cosmetics, fertilizer, and chemical production. 

“This sector has infinite potential. It can be the next golden export product, like shrimp. Our local market is still unexplored at large, as these two are very unusual products. At the same time, we are not ready to cater to such a huge demand yet. We are trying to expand our capacity to create a stable market in this sector,” said Omar Hasan, chief executive officer of Falcon International. 

He said although five ministries are involved in the issue of aquatic food harvesting, this sector has a great number of challenges. 

“We need to explore coastal areas in order to find more suitable locations for harvesting. At the same time, the government needs to exempt the 49.38% duty from these products to let this sector grow,” he added. 

Although the industry holds immense potential, these two food elements have not been able to reach the wider restaurant industry of the country, especially in Dhaka.

Omar said restaurants are still heavily dependent on importing nori (dried edible seaweed) and processed mussels from abroad. However, they have started a pilot project with Golden Tulip in the capital’s Gulshan area to prepare a variety of dishes with homegrown green mussels. 

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