Brittany, the Eldorado of seaweed: the astonishing history of seaweed harvesting

Seaweed is very abundant in Brittany, the region that produces the most in France. In this article, you will discover or re-discover the history of seaweed harvesting throughout the ages in Brittany.

A region that produces 65,000 tonnes of seaweed per year

Brittany is a region where life is good, which is why we can find large quantities of seaweed in our waters. With our strong tides that provide nutrients, our still preserved waters, our temperate currents, and our diverse marine spaces, it can be said that our beautiful region is truly the perfect place for seaweed to grow. As a result, many seaweed-producing companies have sprung up. In Loctudy, for example, we find the Algolesko company: it cultivates seaweed off Lesconil in the Pays Bigouden in an area classified as Natura 2000 and sells it all over the world! Moreover, Brittany is the leading producer of seaweed in Europe and the tenth largest in the world, with a production of 65,000 tonnes per year. But this is nothing new: harvesting seaweed is an old local tradition.

The harvesting of seaweed in the 14th century

Brittany is a region where seaweed is very abundant. During the Middle Ages, it was harvested by the inhabitants to supplement their income. As most of them were farmers, they used seaweed as fertiliser, for feeding cows and as fuel. They also sold part of their harvest to farmers in the hinterland. This was a family activity. The seaweed could be harvested on the shore or further out to sea. Then it was transferred to carts.


17th - 19th century: new uses for seaweed

In the 17th century, the workforce specialising in the harvesting of seaweed increased. It was discovered that the burning of seaweed could produce soda ash, which could then be used in the manufacture of glass. Thanks to this discovery, production intensified and more and more Bretons took up the profession of seaweed harvesters. Two centuries later, a new technique was discovered: the iodine from the burnt seaweed could be used for pharmaceutical purposes. This discovery once again allowed the population to develop their activities around this product.

Harvesting seaweed on the Breton islands

In the Breton islands, this practice was as popular, if not more so, than on the mainland, which created tensions between the islanders and the mainlanders.
The harvesting of seaweed is a different activity on the islands. Indeed, along with fishing, it was the main activity and source of income for the inhabitants. In 1890, a decree was issued on the mainland to prohibit the collection of seaweed during certain periods of the year: anger rose on the islands, particularly in Ouessant. According to the islanders, the rules could not be the same everywhere, as the fuel was lacking on the island. Moreover, most of the population used dried seaweed for cooking. The harvesting of seaweed on the islands was different from that on the mainland. The women were in charge of the harvesting because the men were usually engaged in the navy or in fishing. The harvest was divided among all the islanders.

Gullfisherman fishing, Molène Island - @CDPMEM 29

Modernisation of seaweed harvesting

Due to the increasing demand for seaweed, the harvesting of seaweed had to be modernised to allow for a larger and more efficient production. Therefore, new types of vessels were introduced. However, despite the modernisation of the vessels, the safety of the seaweed harvesters was still at risk. In order to fetch this resource, the crews of these ships took many risks by venturing into dangerous areas. Unfortunately, this situation led to several shipwrecks of seaweed vessels in the 1990s, such as the "Concorde" and the "Tali". This situation has prompted those involved in the sector to consider ways of improving the safety of seaweed harvesters and limiting the risks associated with this activity.

The decline of the seaweed trade

In the 2000s, the profession of seaweed grower became less attractive. Indeed, fewer and fewer people in Brittany wanted to do this job. This was mainly due to the dangers associated with seaweed harvesting at sea, such as difficult weather conditions, the risk of drowning and the accidents associated with the use of heavy tools. In addition, the industrialisation of seaweed production has led to a decrease in demand for the manual work of seaweed harvesters, which has contributed to the decline in the attractiveness of this traditional profession in Brittany. However, a new practice has started to slowly developing: the cultivation of seaweed. A few aquaculture farms have been set up in Brittany, which have made it possible to cultivate better quality algae, while respecting the environment.


The development of seaweed cultivation

From 2010 onwards, the market for seaweed was important worldwide. However, seaweed cultivation in Brittany was stagnating. Thanks to a few people who were trying to develop this resource, it began to grow. The objective of the actors in this sector was to propose a reasoned and sustainable culture, while limiting their impact on the environment and respecting the natural cycles of marine ecosystems. They wanted to preserve the region's biodiversity while meeting the growing demand for seaweed-based products worldwide. Moreover, by developing this local resource, they contributed to job creation and economic development in Brittany, while reinforcing regional pride and identity. Thus, seaweed farming in Brittany has the potential to become a successful example of sustainable and responsible maritime agriculture.