Japan from the inside out

One man’s gunk is another man’s gold mine

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 3, 2009

FOR MOST PEOPLE, seaweed is just unpleasant gunk that gets in the way of a good time. It’s the stuff everyone tries to avoid when swimming at the seashore, or that gets tangled in fishermen’s lines and stuck on the bottoms of boats.

But the Japanese, of course, love to eat it.

And now, the Okinawans are beginning to view it–as well as other aquatic plants—as a marine bioresource.

The grapes of the sea

The grapes of the sea

To turn all that gunk into products that are beneficial for the user and profitable for the consumer, the Okinawa government, through the Okinawa Prefectural Fisheries and Ocean Research Center, has been working for the past three years with the University of Tokyo, the University of the Ryukyus, and bioventures and health food companies in the private sector to develop the marine bioresource industry. They’re also working to establish better control of intellectual property, primarily through the Okinawa Technology Licensing Organization, to ensure that research results and benefits flow to local enterprises. The Ministry of Education is kicking in 100 million yen (about $US 1.026 million) to help with the effort, and the prefectural government is adding another 41 million yen to the pot.

One project they’re working on is the cultivation and promotion of so-called green caviar (Caulerpa lentillifera), or sea grape, as it is known in Japanese. Usually found on sandy or muddy sea bottoms in shallow protected areas, it is eaten in salads and all sorts of other dishes, as you can see from this link. They’re also studying ways to maintain hygiene in the production of the plant as a food item, the creation of secondary products using the plant (such as shampoo), methods for increasing yield, and the development of a fertilizer specifically for the plant.

Try to imagine the fertilizer delivery mechanism for a plant that grows on the sea bed!

Another project is an examination of the efficacy of fucoidan, a substance present in such popular Japanese seaweed varieties as hijiki, kombu, and wakame, and which some think has potential for cancer treatment. In the same way that many local governments in Japan are doing with other products, the Okinawans are trying to boost its value by creating a regional brand.

Still one more project is the development of a kit for the simple and quick detection of ciguatera toxins, which are found in some subtropical fish.

One man’ s meat is another man’s poison, some say, but Okinawa is hoping that some people’s gunk turns into a treasure for all the islanders!

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