Tawi-Tawi: Seaweeds Capital of the Philippines

By JOHNNY R. LEE, Ph.D.

Seaweed farmer shows his harvest. (Johnny R. Lee)

Never in the history of certain places in this country has shown that even a small child as young as 10 years old is able to earn good money  just by selling ‘scraps’ of marine plants that abound the coastal communities in the Province of Tawi-Tawi. These children, who help their parents in the weekly visitation of their seaweed family farm, get incentives by diving and collecting small parts of the seaweed plants that has been broken from the main branch due to wave actions, predations by seaweed-eating fishes and sea turtles. At current buying price of PhP60.00 per kilo of already dried seaweed, one kid who usually averages 20-50 kilograms can get at least PhP2,500.00 weekly. Good money indeed!

The discovery of fast-growing seaweed strain locally known as “tambalang” (in honor of a Sama native who discover the fast growing seaweed strain) in the early 70’s, coupled with the increasing demand from manufacturers of seaweed-based products known as ‘carrageenan’, has triggered the ‘seaweed fever’ in the province. 

Practically, every able-bodied coastal dwellers, including women and children of all ages take part in the new-found ‘wonder sea-plants’ that takes only 45 days to harvest and sold at a price greater than their traditional incomes from the coconut plantations. Most traditional fisherfolks, farmers and traders took 360-degrees turn and engaged in the cultivation of this ‘hidden wonders of the sea’. It has never been so good considering that the area of seaweeds cultivation is, literally, just right in their backyard.

Thereafter, Seaweeds cultivation and later its adoption as genuine industry in the province of Tawi-Tawi have caught wide attention not only in the country but also the world over.

For years, Tawi-Tawi has been labeled as the “Seaweeds Capital of the Philippines”. As a testimony to its abundance, prevalence and contribution to local and national economy, an annual colorful celebration of “Agal-Agal Festival” has been held since 1988 during the provincial founding Anniversary which attracts visitors and tourists from around the country. 

Today it is reported that more than 30,000 families are directly involved in farming seaweeds occupying 35,000 hectares of shorelines and tidal flats in the coastal areas of the province. There are still 26,000 or more hectares available for farming.

Per report from Seaweed Industry Association of the Philippines’ (SIAP) seaweeds is a $200 million industry of the country. This $200 million industry is the world’s major producer of farmed eucheuma and kappaphycus seaweeds currently supplying about 40 percent of the raw material requirements for carrageenan, an ingredient in different food and personal care products and pharmaceuticals.

In 2010, Tawi-Tawi alone produced US$67 million worth of seaweeds. At a current exchange of P44.90 to a U.S. Dollar this would translate to 3 Billion Pesos!

At present, Tawi-Tawi is believed to be producing 36,000 metric tons a year or an average of 3,000 to 4,000 metric tons a month (Martinez, BFAR Tawi-Tawi). However, this figure may not reflect the real total volume of production because there were shipments that were directly brought to Zamboanga City and Port of Cebu by-passing normal recording and accounting done by BFAR personnel in the ports of Bongao and Sitangkai. Besides, there were volumes of shipment that had been reported to land in neighboring countries like Sabah and Indonesia. Thus production volume could even be higher at 30-40% more if we count over the ‘undocumented’ shipments to outside port destinations. DR. JOHNNY R. LEE

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