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Hidden Saviours of Our Seas - Seaweed and Mussels in Combating Algal Blooms and guarding Our Kelongs

Have you ever wondered where the fish you eat comes from? If you think that they are all imported, think again. In 2019, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) reported that our local farms produced 10% of fish consumed. We would like to introduce you to our offshore fish farms or kelongs, mostly located in the Northern Shores of Singapore and some of the issues they face.


A kelong is an offshore wooden platform found mostly in the waters around Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. What once used to be a Malay fishing village, Singapore now sees only a handful of kelongs due to rapid urbanisation, increasing costs and the lack of new licenses. Technically speaking, traditional kelongs are different from fish farms in the way they rear their fish. The funnel-like structure of a kelong guides fish into the centre, where fish are trapped in a net that is collected daily for sale.


Image Source: Ocean Purpose Project


Fish farming involves breeding fish commercially in enclosures. Young fish, or fry, are imported from other waters and reared until they are big enough to sell. Today, about half the fish consumed globally are produced in fish farms as overfishing continues to deplete natural stocks to unsustainable levels.


With the latest announcement of Singapore’s 2021 Budget by DPM Heng Swee Keat which includes a $60 million agri-food cluster transformation fund to boost local production through technology, developed fish farms with the expertise, money and technology to replicate ideal conditions may soon wipe out more “traditional” kelongs run by our beloved aunties and uncles. This is also highly in line with SFA’s “30 by 30” plan to produce 30% of our nutritional needs locally by 2030. What will happen to our kelong operators who lack the infrastructure and support to produce more fish and who are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change?


Algal Blooms

Just 2 months ago, a phenomenon occurred along the waters of Sentosa Cove where residents reported pink water, mass fish kill and a foul, sewage-like stench. Further investigations discovered the cause to be an algal bloom triggered by a high nutrient level and organic content in the water due to heavy and continuous rainfall. High nutrient levels and warming water deplete oxygen levels in the water, suffocating fish and leading to mass fish kill.


Image Source: SENTOSA COVE COMMUNITY, THE HERON OF THE GREEN BARRELS


Image Source: EarthHow


This crisis also hit Pasir Ris in 2015, where Singaporean fish farmers were hit the hardest as they lost up to 600 tonnes of fish. In February last year, hundreds of dead fish were also reported along Pasir Ris, although the cause of death was unknown. As climate change results in more frequent extreme weather events and warmer temperatures, we might be seeing algal blooms more frequently in the future, especially if further land reclamation or dredging continues to increase sedimentation levels in our waters.


Image Source: Robin Choo


Uncle Goh in Pasir Ris

In January, we had the privilege of visiting Uncle Goh - a very lovely and friendly 66-year old kelong operator off the shores of Pasir Ris. He shared with us how he lost almost $500,000 the first time his kelong was hit by an algal bloom in 2009, and how helpless he felt to witness floating dead fish all around his kelong. Watch our CNY video here to learn more about Uncle Goh and what it takes to run a kelong.


Image Source: Ocean Purpose Project


Our solution - Seaweed and Mussels Aquaculture

Uncle Goh is one of our partners working with Ocean Purpose Project on a potential solution to combat algal blooms and the plastic pollution crisis altogether. Known as bio-filters of the sea, both mussels and seaweed have the ability to filter out harmful toxins in our waters. Seaweed in particular have bioactive compounds with antibacterial, antifungal, anti-microalgae, and antioxidant properties and are also capable of absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, playing a significant role in the fight against climate change. As filter-feeders, mussels obtain food by filtering large volumes of water to consume microorganisms and nutrients. Growing seaweed and mussel lines to act as a “curtain” around his kelong is the first step of OPP’s research project to determine the potential of seaweed and mussel aquaculture in deterring algal blooms and saving Uncle Goh’s fish stock.


Image Source: University of Florida Shellfish Aquaculture Research & Extension


But If The Seaweed and Mussels Are Grown To Absorb Toxins, What Can We Do With This Crop?

Meet the 2nd phase of OPP’s research project with Uncle Goh - creating an entirely new plastic material out of seaweed and mussels, tackling the plastic pollution crisis at its roots. Research is underway to investigate the potential of our native seaweed and mussel species as 100% biodegradable plastics that are even safe to consume. Our friends at Evo & Co. have created edible seaweed plastics in Indonesia while The Shell Works has developed new material out of seafood waste hence the concept, while bizarre, is definitely not new! Reach out to us if you would like to purchase these seaweed-based packaging.


Image Source: Evoware Catalogue


How You Can Play A Part

To kickstart our project, we are currently retailing seaweed and mussel lines at S$50 each to be used as a "curtain" that surrounds Uncle Goh’s kelong, possibly protecting fish stocks from future algal blooms. Within 1 month, seaweed and mussel growth can be observed (subject to water quality). This can be purchased via our Ocean Purpose Project App - under the OPP Shop. Proceeds will be going towards implementation and maintenance of the seaweed and mussel ropes, Uncle Goh as well as OPP's local conservation efforts.




Should this project with Uncle Goh be successful, we plan to roll out seaweed and mussel lines across all ~60 kelongs in Pasir Ris, providing a secondary crop for our kelong operators as they combat algal blooms and climate change.


Join us today to help combat algal blooms and climate change while saving our local kelong industry and tackling the global plastic pollution crisis.


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