Sayagraj, 57, was inspired by a video on seaweed harvesting done in Indonesia 12 years ago. He tried to replicate the procedure as a business venture along the Threspuram coast in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukkudi by designing plots in the sea. It paid off.
Sayagraj, who began as an amateur some years ago, is now well-versed in the technical knowhow and machinery provided by companies that have tapped into the profitable export business.
Seaweed harvesting, a traditional occupation for many in Tamil Nadu, sustains a Rs 28,445 crore global market, as per 2017 estimates. Seaweed is used in the food and cosmetics industries. Particularly, the extract from red seaweed in Tamil Nadu is utilised in the manufacture of agar, a gelatinous thickener used in beverages and ice cream.
Seaweed, collected in bottles tied along a 15-metre rope, has to be harvested for 40 days. It is of value only in its spongy form and not after it becomes brittle.
However, the job, done in 21 villages along the Tamil Nadu coast, is laborious and risky, calling for tact, skill and observation. “We have to constantly guard the seaweed from shoals of fish which can pass by at any given time. This requires monitoring and repeated diving into the ocean waters,” Sayagraj says, explaining the process of harvesting.
Before diving 18 feet into the ocean, ropes have to be anchored properly to ensure they are not loose. Sayagraj’s son, Paulraj, 34, talks about the injuries he has suffered during harvesting. “The wounds on my feet sting in the salty water. There are times when sharp and poisonous weeds get in the way of harvesting. We rub seaweed extracts, which have antiseptic properties, on our feet,” he says.
Leave alone physical injuries, it is a thankless job, say seaweed harvesters. While major industries rely on seaweed, the labour and skill of the harvesters often goes unrecognised. Harvesters do not have a legitimate identity. As per government norms, they are neither fishermen nor farmers.
“Fishermen get compensation through their associations during off-season or bad weather. But we get no such benefits. Late rains in November and December last year affected harvesting but we had to live with it,” Paulraj adds.
Among the other problems are rising sea temperatures, falling seaweed yield and labour shortage. “Many fishermen don’t want to get involved as it is tedious work. Younger people are now migrating from the village in search of better job opportunities, leaving only a few of us behind,” says Sayagraj, who was formerly a farmer.
In another disheartening development for the divers, harvesting is no longer a Tamil Nadu monopoly. Seaweed is now being exported from states such as Gujarat too. This means tough competition. Export companies have begun to mushroom in Ramanathapuram and Madurai. “The demand for seaweed is rising but the odds are mostly against us,” Paulraj says.
Mahera Dutta is currently a student of Journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai