It’s ugly, it’s slimy, it stinks and it’s easy to see why holidaymakers complain about the seaweed that lines the beaches of our coast.
But one Whitby woman is out to convince us that seaweed is actually hugely important in the modern world.
Scientist Jane Pottas has dedicated her life to the study of seaweed.
“People have flowers because they are more charismatic. But I think seaweeds are very beautiful,” said the secretary of the British Phycological Society, who has just returned from a project cataloguing the various species kept at the Natural History Museum in London.
It is a tough time to be a seaweed scientist and Jane now finds herself unemployed, there being few available roles for experts in phycology - the study of algae, kelp and other species.
Regretfully, Jane said few universities now teach the subject.
She achieved her doctorate in the subject by producing a 47,000-word thesis on a single species called Fucus spiralis.
However, she said: “Few of us have permanent posts, and as those that do age, who is going to take up the mantle and learn about these organisms?
“The red seaweeds have some of the most complicated life cycles of any organism on this Earth, which I think is fascinating. I won’t live long enough to learn all there is to know about them.”
There are 10,000 species of seaweed worldwide, 650 of which can be found around Britain. A single beach can contain 100 different species, but what is surprising is that it can be found in a wide range of wholly-unexpected places.
“It’s a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide,” explained Jane. “We’re eating seaweed in lots of products that people don’t even realise.”
Seaweed is routinely used as a thickener in ice cream and tooth paste and the E numbers E400 to E407 are seaweed derivatives.
Traditional ways of eating different varieties include Welsh laverbread or Japanese sushi, but most will not realise that when visiting the dentists to get impressions made for dentures, seaweed extracts are used.
Claims have long been made about the nutritional values of seaweed, such as it being good for digestive health or a great source of minerals such as calcium, iodine, or magnesium, but now research is taking place that suggests it could be used to help prevent cancer.
As they spend half their time underwater and the other half exposed to the sun’s rays, seaweeds protect themselves from the sun’s ultraviolet rays by producing special chemicals.
Jane explained: “We’re finding these chemicals have medicinal values for anti-cancer, anti-tumour and anti-fungal treatment. There are whole labs dedicated to investigating treatments using seaweed.”
Despite this, Jane said she still avoids eating seaweed if she can: “At the conference of the British Phycological Society a lunch of seaweed was provided. I went and got a Snickers from the vending machine.”
Away from human industry, seaweed is also a vital part of the marine ecosystem.
It acts as the grass of the ocean, providing food and protection for other species.
“Like plants on land, they are the primary producers, converting the sun’s energy,” explained Jane.
When the seaweed is eaten by creatures such as limpets, this energy enters the food chain. Just like plants, seaweed also absorbs carbon dioxide, oxygenating the ocean in the process.
But the Whitby coastline owes more to seaweed than you might think. The foliage disperses wave energy and acts as a natural coastal protection system.
Jane explained: “There are big kelp beds just off the harbour mouth and all along the coast where there’s a big rocky bottom. Without that there the waves would just crash on to the shore.”
Unsurprisingly, Whitby has a long history of seaweed and scientists. In 1866 an 8-metre long specimen of Alaria Esculenta was collected by the famous scientist Edward George during a holiday to the area. The seaweed still sits in the Natural History Museum’s herbarium and Mrs Pottas has arranged for it to be taken out on loan so it can be presented at a talk she is running with Whitby Naturalist’s Club on January 25.
In pursuing a career in phycological studies, Jane is following in the footsteps of many amateur Victorian women who studied the natural world.
“In the Victorian age it was acceptable for women to go out without a chaperone and they were very knowledgable of seaweed,” said Jane, who said that seaweed samples were swapped like stamps and people would have their own collections. “What we know about seaweed you can link to the development of the railways as people could afford to go on holiday. So there’s a social history aspect to it.”
Seaweed may also help shape our future as it is an accurate indicator of climate change, due to its sensitivity to seawater temperature and acidification.
So if anybody ever asks ‘what’s the point of seaweed?’ you’ll be able to tell them.