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The story of the Seaweed Lady

THE problems of ocean space and the environment are so closely interrelated that there is a need for such problems to be considered as a whole. A solution to the problems could be perhaps drawn from a case study: the story of the “seaweed lady”, Dr Kathleen Drew-Baker (1901-1957), who was a marine botanist at the University of Manchester.

Out of her own curiosity, she observed that come spring, there was a bloom of the edible seaweed porphyria umbilicalis in the waters off the North Wales coastline. She pursued research work, unpaid, as a university honorary research fellow. In 1949, Dr Drew-Baker published a paper in the journal Nature detailing her research findings on the life history of the seaweed porphyra umbilicalis, a close relative to the edible seaweed nori that is farmed in Japan. Both porphyra umbilicalis and nori grow in the same way.

Disaster

seaweed farmer
A seaweed farmer from Shimanto, Japan (public domain / wiki commons)

Earlier in 1948, after World War II, disaster struck the Japanese nori farming industry. The production of seaweed plummeted. Scientists in Japan attributed it to some environmental factors: the increased use of fertilisers in Japanese farming, and the rise in industrial pollution of coastal waters, combined with a series of typhoons which destroyed many of the seaweed beds. Many farmers lost their livelihoods.

Little was known about the nori seaweed’s life cycle, initially leaving scientists unable to offer any practical help. That was until Prof Muneno Kuroge of Hokkaido University reviewed the basic research work done by Dr Drew-Baker, and applied it with the experimental research support of the Fukuoka Fisheries Department by developing artificial seeding techniques.

The new techniques enabled nori to be grown as a farm crop and led to greater control over harvests, resulting in increased production. Nori farming in Japan today is a lucrative business that generates hundreds of thousands annually in revenue.

Japanese nori farmers were forever grateful to Dr Drew-Baker for her research, and she is credited with helping to save their farming industry.

In 1963, a memorial to Dr Drew-Baker was erected in Tokyo by nori farmers. And each year on 14 April, those involved in the farming industry gather at Sumiyoshi Shrine Park to celebrate the Drew Festival. The memorial elevates Dr Drew-Baker as ‘the mother of the sea”.

Lessons to be learnt

Sushi
Nori seaweed is used in Japanese cuisine
(© Lainie Yeoh)

The natural sciences, as in the case of the nori seaweed, can help address the questions of “What is it all about”, and “How to solve a technical problem”. But these scientific and technical disciplines can hardly explain the real question: “Why did such a disaster happen?” and “Who caused it?”

The social sciences might help us answer these questions. If a socio-industrial-anthropologist were to study the demography of the Japanese sea-weed farming communities, she or he would have come up with the reason behind the disaster. She or he would also have answered the question of who was responsible for it.

During the war, there was a decline in the number of seaweed farmers and young fisherfolk, as most of them were recruited to join the Japanese Imperial Army. Fewer men meant that less amount of seashells were dumped back to the sea.

This resulted in less amount of fine particles released from the coring of seashells by marine worms that would have remained in suspension, especially in spring. Nori spores from the “mother” seaweed attach themselves to these particles which remain suspended in the water throughout winter into spring. Without these suspended particles, the spores were buried at the bottom of the sea by winter sediments generated from the surrounding land and other run-offs to the sea.

Hence, without sea shells, there would be no suspended particles from the activity of coring worms. And no spores could remain in suspension just below the water surface where it could receive sunlight and bloom in spring.

In conclusion, the royal imperialists were the ones responsible, and should have been liable for, the disaster that nearly destroyed nori farming in Japan.

The moral of this story? Both natural sciences and humanity subjects are pre-requisites toward excellence in policy research. Favicon


Datuk Abu Bakar Jaafar is a mechanical engineer by profession, environmental scientist by specialisation, and maritime expert by current pre-occupation. He believes not many have spoken up enough for Mother Earth and for our common good and that it is high time to speak up again. He was director-general of the Department of Environment, Malaysia from 1990 to 1995.

See also:
The economics of waste

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