Many Tauranga residents think of sea lettuce as nothing more than a smelly nuisance but could soon be used to fuel international flights, a visiting professor says.
Professor Rocky de Nys, Head of Aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, specialises in turning algae into crude biofuels - which can then be refined into whichever type of fuel is desired.
Speaking at the Coastal Economic Symposium 2013, run by the University of Waikato in Tauranga yesterday, Pr de Nys said the aviation industry was already looking towards the not-too-distant future when biofuels would be more economically viable than conventional fossil fuels.
While the commercial possibilities of biofuel were dictated by the supply of remaining fossil fuels, there were plenty of other uses for algae that could be seized upon by Bay of Plenty businesses, Pr de Nys said.
"Sea lettuce is a resource ... by harvesting and utilising it you could remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the harbour, it takes carbon out of the harbour, and then it can be used for a number of applications.
"You can eat sea lettuce, you can make fuel from sea lettuce, you can make fertiliser from sea lettuce, but really there's an opportunity to farm sea lettuce.
"So you can stop seeing it as a nuisance and start seeing it at a resource to utilise carefully and link the environment with the economy."
Hundreds of tonnes of sea lettuce wash up on the shores of Tauranga Harbour each year, where it dries, rots and emits a particularly unpleasant odour.
Responding to residents' complaints, the Tauranga City Council scrapes the smelly algae off the shore and takes it away.
Tauranga Harbour programme co-ordinator Bruce Gardener is this summer trialing the use of sea lettuce as a garden mulch and fertiliser.
Head of Aquaculture at the Bay of Plenty Polytech Dr Simon Muncaster, also speaking at the symposium, said in order to farm sea lettuce in the Bay research would have to be done to understand the best growing conditions, required nutrient levels, ideal temperatures and how to control the algae's reproductive cycle.
A Centre of Excellence for Aquaculture would provide the necessary expertise and research capability to inform potential investors in sea lettuce farms or other aquaculture business, he said.
Dr Muncaster used his speech at the symposium to call for an aquaculture research facility to be set up in Tauranga.
Such a facility could partner with businesses to see the Western Bay develop its aquaculture potential, he said.
"I think that if you want to grow aquaculture in the Bay of Plenty it's logical to try and initiate the generation of knowledge to do that locally."
Aquaculture was an under-utilised industry in the Bay of Plenty, he said.