It is ironic that the north-west Victorian town of Donald--in semi-arid country 250 kilometres from the coast--is investigating the potential of seaweed as the basis for a new industry.
Seaweed is used in many applications, ranging from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to the gels stabilising ice cream, toothpaste and pet food. Recently, it has been in the news as a resource for diabetes research. Seaweed, or marine algae, is also an important element in other aquaculture, such as prawn and abalone farming.
Much of the seaweed used in Australia is imported, with the main domestic operation based on harvesting drift kelp on King Island. Elsewhere around the coastline, seaweed is mostly protected, preventing the hunch of mariculture businesses.
While the contrast between seaweed's marine environment and the drought-ravaged Wimmera region is stark, the two environments have something in common--salinity.
Running north and south of Donald is a 50-metre-thick underground aquifer, estimated to be 50 kilometres long and four to eight kilometres wide. The aquifer's salinity is evident by the sparse vegetation--mainly salt bush--east of Lake Buloke, which has been dry for the past decade. Even without a drought, salinity has ruined the prospects for prosperous farming above the aquifer.
Against this background, hydro-geologist Phil Dyson and marine biologist Rob Cordover approached the Donald and District Landcare Group in 2003 with the radical idea of using the saline groundwater to grow seaweed. They found a receptive audience in the group's chairman, Leo Tellefson, who was keen to turn the saline water to a productive use and revitalise the business of local farmers. Seaweed is one of several potential new industries being investigated by the Buloke Shire.
Phil Dyson has extensive experience in saline groundwater and remains involved in managing the project, overseeing a diverse team including a local chemist, an aquaculture expert and Melbourne University botanists, who are carrying out experimental work. …