Gabriella D’Cruz: Goa's Seaweed Queen
Gabriella D’Cruz is a marine conservationist with a Masters in Biodiversity Conservation and Management from the University of Oxford. A self-proclaimed seaweed nerd (alternatively, she is also often introduced as Goa’s “Seaweed Queen”), she feels really fortunate to have worked with teams and projects working hard to safeguard coral reefs and cetaceans. Her most recent project involves her researching and developing a sustainable aquaculture business involving seaweed!
What sparked your passion for marine life?
Having grown up without a T.V., I was inspired by stories of the sea through the yellow bordered pages of the National Geographic magazine. The people and places I read about sparked my interest in a career in wildlife conservation.
I started to work in the marine space when I learned to dive and then interned with the WWF in Goa around 5 years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed working with a small, dedicated and enthusiastic team, spending hours writing up reports, out on boats in the sun, diving through our local coral reef and hosting stakeholder meetings with the local community and government. My work in Thailand with The New Heaven Reef Conservation Program, where I helped restore local reefs, was also incredibly inspiring.
Sustaining a passion of this kind and turning it into a career is challenging. I am very fortunate to have some wonderful mentors in the marine conservation and business space, many of whom are women and share a similar desire to conserve the ecosystems we love so much.
It was over three years ago that I met a very inspiring community of women seaweed divers in the Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu. The women received a minimal amount of money for the seaweed they collected, in spite of the hard and often treacherous process of diving for seaweed.
Hardworking coastal communities like these are often deprived of a decent income and are also the first to be affected by climate change and an unstable economy. I would like to use seaweed harvesting and cultivation as a tool to safeguard coastal spaces and support the communities reliant on them.
I am really lucky to live in Goa, not only for its natural beauty and its links with the sea but also because people in Goa are very environmentally proactive. My childhood was spent mostly outdoors, catching fish in shallow streams, finding new paths through the hills, feasting on wild berries in the summer months and hiding in trees with the neighbourhood kids. Beach days were always the best and it was here that I developed a keen interest in the crabs and other critters found in tide pools and along the shore. I learned from a very young age that the outdoors was a space to be respected and conserved.
I don’t think we appreciate the natural resources we possess in Goa. Somehow in this mad rush to ‘develop’ the State we have forgotten to stop and appreciate the rich diversity of the Western Ghats, the fresh water flowing through the River Mandovi, the sheer beauty of the mangroves, the resilience of our coral reefs and the ever-giving Arabian Sea. Our tourism industry, our agricultural reserves, our very culture, down to the essential fish in our curry, is linked so closely to our resources. I hope more people take pride in our natural spaces and work collectively towards preserving them.Can your work in any way offer solutions/ useful adaptive strategies to the climate and ecological crisis?
My project is an attempt at growing seaweed in a land-based system - in this case, a shrimp farm. Shrimp farms produce effluents that are normally released into rivers which causes an imbalance in the chemistry of the river. Seaweed acts as a bio-filter by absorbing the nutrients produced by shrimp and using it to grow. The water being released back into the river has significantly less concentrations of effluent as a result of the seaweed.
I hope to be able to design this system to work in different shrimp farms, providing the farmers with an additional product to sell and at the same time removing excess nutrients from shrimp farm effluent. The ecological benefits of this project are threefold. It sustains cleaner, more resilient estuaries and rivers, the seaweed absorbs carbon from the atmosphere through its growth cycle, and the farms can hopefully in time, blend seaweed into their shrimp feed, thereby reducing the amount of wild fish feed being used.
Wow, that sounds incredible! I hear seaweed has many diverse uses. I’m sure there are many more reasons why you love it?
Yes, this is why I love seaweed! As a marine algae, some species of seaweed grow three times faster than land plants, and don’t require any land or fertilisers (think corn) to grow, making seaweed a great food and bioplastic source. Seaweed bioplastics are completely biodegradable and edible. Some good examples of this are by British company NotPla and Indonesian company, Evoware.
Seaweed farms – if sustainably managed using local species – can effectively absorb carbon from the atmosphere too. In addition to this, seaweed forests can help sustain fish stocks, acting as safe spaces for fish and other marine life to feed and breed. Seaweed is also a low-carbon and vegan food source that has a range of essential nutrients, including iodine, B12 and omega-3. Besides, it’s great for your skin.
Honestly, what’s not to love?
What is one of your favorite wild spaces in Goa?
This is such a hard question to answer. I have too many favorites. One of them is the coastal walk along the cliffs facing the sea in Sinquerim. I have been going there since I was a child. It has the most breathtaking views of the sea. I also love kayaking through the mangroves down the Chapora River at sunset. Just thinking about these spaces makes me happy.
Written by Francesca Cotta
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