Câr-y-Môr: love of the sea

24 May 2023

Did you know that seaweed isn’t just good to eat, but good for both terrestrial and marine ecosystems?

We explore how with Nikki Spil of The Seaweed Farmers and Câr-y-Môr.

Câr-y-Môr is a seaweed and shellfish farm off the coast of Pembrokeshire, in Wales. It’s also a pioneer in the use of seaweed in a diverse range of applications, and hopes to inspire coastal communities to invest in seaweed as an ecological alternative to fishing.

The name of the business means “love of the sea”: a love which is manifested through a series of environmentally-friendly practices that are designed to create positive feedback loops for the good of both the land and the sea: two ecosystems which are fundamentally interconnected.

Slow Food: How did you first get into seaweed farming, and why?

Nikki Spil: I was born and raised in North Holland, in the Netherlands, surrounded by the sea. I remember working to clean the beaches from my teenage years, and being moved by the impact of all the trash on the coastal landscape. This feeling of concern was exacerbated by the presence of a large steel factory near the port of Amsterdam, which was polluting the water. I asked myself “What can we do to help this ecosystem?”, and turned to seaweed as a natural filtration system.

The health benefits of eating seaweed are well-known, but I was surprised and saddened to realize that the seaweed grown in the seas around North Holland was not fit for human consumption, because of the high levels of toxins it absorbs from the polluted water. That’s when I started to become interested in all the other applications of seaweed, from its use as a material for building insulation to its potential as a biostimulant for crops.

Nikki Spil. Photo: Behind The Change

What exactly are biostimulants?

Biostimulants are substances which are sprayed on crops to stimulate nutrient uptake, improve stress tolerance and reduce the need for the use of fertilizers. As with all seaweed-based products, they’re highly beneficial from an environmental perspective, as seaweed is grown without the need for any soil or freshwater. And by using seaweed extracts rather than other forms of fertilizer we can decrease our footprint on our land and water resources, too.

As an architect by trade, I got in touch with a business partner and together we made a design for a refinery that can transform raw seaweed into biostimulant extract. We’re already working with a tulip farmer in the Netherlands who’s using it as a fertilizer. But that’s not all we can do with seaweed: we can press it, use it in injection molding, and create alternatives to plastic from it. The potential is enormous.

And so how did you end up working with Câr-y-Môr?

I first got in touch with Câr-y-Môr because this was an operation that was attempting something I was interested in, i.e. producing seaweed at scale, increasing the volume enough to make these secondary activities, like refining, economically feasible.

At the same time, I was enticed by the prospect of seaweed farming in cleaner waters: because the fresh Atlantic stream creates wonderful conditions for the plants to grow, meaning they’re perfectly edible.

For those of us not familiar with the Welsh language: what does the name mean?

It translates roughly to “for love of the sea”. It’s a community-owned business, started by Owen Haines, who had previously been involved in running aquaculture farms in Scotland. He wanted to move into a more sustainable way of producing food, and knew of a crab and lobster processing plant in St. David’s, in his native Wales, that he had an opportunity to manage. With Câr-y-Môr, he extended the business to the farming of these animals as well as mussels, oysters and, of course, seaweed. There are now more than 240 owner-members.

One important thing to note is that Câr-y-Môr is Wales’ first community-owned ocean farm: this isn’t simply a profit-making business, but a Community Benefit Society, with the joint aims of making a contribution to the regeneration of the coastal environment in Pembrokeshire, and of the well-being of the community, including through job creation.

The conference at Slow Fish 2023

Come and hear from Nikki Spil and representatives from Patagonia who’ll explain the work they’re doing to promote a Nature Restoration Law at the Slow Fish Arena, on June 2 at 3 p.m. The event is free to attend but registration is required.

Book your free place now! 

You talk about seaweed as being a natural filtration system. Mussels and oysters too play a similar role. How are they different?

Insofar as both seaweed and shellfish are food for humans, they’re similar in that their role as filters and cleaners of the sea can make them unfit for human consumption, where levels of contamination are too high or we find specific types of water pollution.

On the most basic level, seaweed are plants, and not animals: they absorb energy from the sun through photosynthesis and extract carbon dioxide from the water, producing oxygen which is useful for both marine animals and the atmosphere. They also extract nitrates and phosphates in the water, which is what makes them useful as a fertilizer on land.

Shellfish can also sequester carbon in their shells, though high levels of carbon dioxide in the water are disrupting their ability to grow. There’s a dangerous potential feedback loop here, because the presence of shellfish helps reduce the acidity of seawater. The North Sea is becoming too acidic, partly because of a lack of shellfish. Their populations have been decimated by bottom trawling, and this contributes to the acidification of the oceans. This in turn hinders the revival of shellfish populations.

So what’s holding you back?

It’s really just a question of volume. We’re ready for market, and have a production line in place making biodegradable flower pots with a seaweed-based plastic substitute. We’re working with Notpla in London to produce sustainable food packaging containers, and our star product, the seaweed-based biofertilzier… we just need more seaweed, and more seaweed farmers!

We need to increase the number of seaweed farmers, then. Perhaps easier said than done.

Potential farmers are dissuaded from getting involved because it’s hard to get permits. In the Netherlands every square meter of the North Sea has already been accounted for, by wind turbine parks and fisheries. But as we’re moving into a future where, sadly, there’ll be less and less fish, and therefore less fishers, we’d like to see a rethinking of the sea and retrain fishers as seaweed and shellfish farmers. It would be good for employment and the environment.

The coast of Pembrokeshire, where Câr-y-Môr are farming seaweed and shellfish. Photo: Câr-y-Môr Facebook.

Growing seaweed would be a start. But then there’s the question of refining it: a lot of the uses you’ve described for seaweed will require refining facilities.

Well you don’t need as many refineries as you do farms. We grow 60 tons of seaweed a year at Câr-y-Môr, but this only takes 27 days to refine. We have the capacity to refine the yields of several other farms… the problem is we’re some of the only ones growing it.

Seaweed is slowly becoming hip, but it deserves to be taken much more seriously as a solution to a variety of food system issues, both on land and at sea. If we used seaweed fertilizers on land then agricultural runoff would not be so toxic to the sea. Cattle fed on seaweed-based feed create less methane. And growing seaweed to feed cattle would reduce the need for imported corn and soy. All we need is volume.

Beyond Slow Fish, what other communication initiatives are you participating in to spread this message?

Patagonia is running a campaign to promote a Nature Restoration Law at the European level, and they’ve produced a documentary regarding a series of organizations, including Câr-y-Môr, that are already working to restore nature. We have a common desire: we want the fish lobby to restore what it has damaged, to restore the health of oyster banks and mussel banks in the North Sea, to replant seagrass meadows. The documentary should be released next month!

In the meantime, you can come and learn more about Câr-y-Môr and Patagonia’s initiatives to restore the oceans at Save The Oceans And They’ll Save Us, June 2 at 3 p.m. in the Slow Fish Arena.

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

Skip to content