Markets and marketing
A critical aspect of the success of the Irish seaweed industry will be the amount of money that is invested in product development and in marketing, which is the case in the marine industry as a whole. The production of attractive, acceptable, nutritious seaweed products will require considerable long-term investment.
Much research and development is needed to find new seaweed-based products and investment is required to wean the public away from the image of seaweed as something that was only consumed by animals and rather silly people. Many of the dried seaweeds presently available on the world's markets do nothing for the image of seaweeds as sea-vegetables with their poor packaging, indifferent presentation and variable quality.
One of the first things that needs to be done is to change the perception of marine algae as "weeds" and to popularise the notion of them as "vegetables". In other words, to introduce the term "sea-vegetable" rather than the pejorative term "seaweed". A considerable advantage, particularly for the diet-food market, is that many seaweed polysaccharides are virtually indigestible by western digestive enzymes and therefore the amount of "real" calories is very low. A major disadvantage, however, of most sea-vegetables is that it is very difficult to get them to market fresh as they deteriorate very rapidly. Most have to be dried, although virtually all show improved taste and mouth-feel with drying.
With the progressive decline in the number of people willing to harvest seaweed, it is likely that supplies of sea-vegetables will have to be assured by mariculture. An added bonus of growing sea-vegetables is that a standard product would be produced with improved appearance and nutritional content; in addition, a steady, planned supply would be possible. Food research into the preparation of sea-vegetable products and their incorporation into other products is urgently needed. Some possibilities include: introducing small amounts of some traditional seaweeds such as dulse and carrageen into prepared fish dishes and into natural desserts, respectively; incorporation of sea-vegetables into snack foods; development of sea-vegetable-based foods with low calorie levels. All of these, however, require investment and our experiences with attracting Irish companies willing to invest in such enterprises have not been good.