A seaweed considered a "pest" in New Zealand waters could one day be on the plates of Japanese, Korean and Chinese diners.
Wakame Fresh received $75,000 from the Ministry of Primary Industries' Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund (SFF Futures) to support its investigation into the "commercial viability of turning a weed into a high value export industry".
Wakame Fresh harvests Undaria pinnatifida — also known as wakame — a seaweed that is considered to be a highly invasive pest and often called the "gorse of the sea".
Although considered a pest — it is one of the 100 most invasive species — wakame has long been a staple of the Japanese, Korean and Chinese diets, packed with vitamins and minerals and believed to deliver a range of health benefits
The seaweed obstructs mussel farms and ravages native marine species. It was introduced to New Zealand in the 1980s and is now wide-spread through the southern and eastern coastlines.
Undaria is in short supply in Japan and the Coromandel-based company aims to exploit this gap in the market, exporting the New Zealand supply of Undaria, "turning gorse into gourmet".
Wakame Fresh managing director Lucas Evans says "there's a tremendous opportunity for New Zealand as an alternate aquaculture sector.
"Whether it's with this particular seaweed, Undaria, or native seaweeds. Applications in food, nutraceuticals, herbalisers, it's just so vast."
Evans notes the potential risks of the farming of the invasive seaweed but was keen to stress the positive impact harvesting the weed has.
"Our project has no connection with farming — it's all about wild harvest. We're reducing the biomass of this Undaria and having a positive impact on the environment, so when people talk about this particular seaweed in relation to risk, often the first thing that's assumed is that it's a farming activity. I think it's important to make that distinction. It's actually a wild harvest."
The harvesting is both sustainable and environmentally friendly. The company believes that seaweed "will contribute toward the world's efforts to combat climate change, to develop and provide life changing medicines ad contribute toward the world's food security".
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says: "This project is really exciting. It's pioneering, it's innovative and it has the potential to create new market opportunities. It also supports a Government priority to assist thriving and sustainable regions.
"This could be the next big thing for New Zealand. We could be looking at the start of a lucrative edible seaweed export market into Japan and other Asian countries."
MPI director investment programme Steve Penno adds the project has a lot of potential benefits to the local area, the aquaculture industry, and New Zealand as a whole.
"These include developing a new, value-add industry for New Zealand which could create jobs, and also help encourage the aquaculture sector and potentially others in New Zealand to collaborate and invest in the seaweed sector."