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Rebuilding Consumer Trust Through ASC-MSC Seaweed Certification in South Korea

On a mission to restore the marine environment, rebuild trust and improve perceptions of seaweed farming. 

Along the scenic shores of South Korea’s Jeollanam-do (or South Jeolla) province lies Jangheung-gunIn this area, where sea meets land, seaweed farming is ingrained into daily life; the Jangheung-gun community has been farming seaweed using fixed pole and floating methods since before 1960.  

There are 3,600 hectares of seaweed farms in Jangheung-gun that produce up to 2.8 million units of dried seaweed each year. 1 unit: 100 pieces of dried rectangle sheet of seaweed.

The prominent species is gim – more widely known as laver. Ten farmers, whose facilities make up 412 hectares of that 3,600 total, are ASC-MSC seaweed certified. 

We visited YongChil Jang, CEO of Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative, to see an ASC-MSC certified seaweed farm in action and to learn about their approach to environmentally and socially responsible seaweed farming. 

Leading positive change in seaweed farming

YongChil Jang is an ex-government officer. His career spanned 30 years of service across Jeollanam-do in the farming department and, notably, the aquaculture department. Fitting experience to then take charge of the branding and processing business of Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative, before becoming CEO.  

Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative is a participatory farmer’s joint-stock company, made up of 110 seaweed farmers and dried gim producers. It was created in 2009 as a result of Jeollanam-do and Jangheung-gun’s promotion policy to expand and commercialise the farming industry. 

The cooperative is responsible for distributing and processing laver – 500,000 units of dried seaweed per year, and its members are responsible for purchasing and processing fisheries and commercialising their products. 

“We mainly manage the farmers’ operations, directly purchase, and produce dried seaweed in three drying facilities. All of them have obtained Chain of Custody certification and are distributing ASC-MSC labelled products domestically and globally.” 

Farmed with care

Every year, Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative’s hatchery process is carried out from late September to early October – split half and half between sea-based and land-based – before the main grow-out phase starts in November.  

On average, the farmers flip over their growing seaweed once a week. This prevents diseases and reduces the risk of foreign substances settling and living in the seaweed.  

Daily harvesting begins in early December, continuing until the end of April. There are slight variations for the different species produced depending on the time of year – mainly due to changes in water temperature. Successful farming is achieved when the current flow is strong. 

A process of restoration

YongChil Jang admits that seaweed farming processes in the region haven’t always been environmentally friendly, and this had a negative impact on perception of the industry. 

“Farmers used to treat the seaweed with hydrochloric acid. If it sank to the bottom, it could damage the ecosystem by reacting with and hardening the mudflats.” 

Thankfully, the Jangheung-gun local government introduced the Musan Gim proclamation in 2008 which prohibits the use of any acidic additives. The following year, with all farmers participating, the Jangheung Musan seaweed production facility began receiving Korean organic certification.

But it wasn’t straightforward…there was an initial fear of stopping the 40-year-old practice of acid treatment, and they knew additional labour would be required, due to tasks such as flipping. The farmers knew that switching to the non-acidic, more eco-friendly seaweed production method would cause output volumes to decrease.  

To alleviate concerns, the cooperative applied for an eco-friendly direct subsidy and compensation package, which has supported the farms since 2018. 

“Now, it is important to make efforts to restore the marine environment, to rebuild trust and improve perceptions of seaweed farming.” 

Taking care of their surrounding marine environment is hugely important because the farms are situated amongst a vast and thriving seagrass forest, which has an excellent ability to purify the water and is a key spawning habitat for marine animals and plants.  

Seagrass does not grow well when acids are used – so it’s a sign that the Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative farmers’ actions are having a positive impact.

Jangheung-gun is setting the benchmark for seaweed farming marine ecosystem preservation in South Korea by sticking to the regulation and not over farming through exceeding their legal permitted area, but for meaningful progress, YongChil Jang believes others need to follow in their footsteps:

“I think other local governments should also follow this practice of farming. I believe that this industry can be sustained only by upgrading seaweed farming and products to gain global trust.” 

The journey to ASC-MSC seaweed certification

To further improve their environmental and social impacts and the market reach of their products, Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative began pursuing ASC-MSC seaweed certification in 2020.  

“We were proud of Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative as one of the representative seaweed production areas in Korea, and we started working hard to expand into overseas markets.” 

After preparation and adjustments to ensure they met the requirements, they applied for certification in February 2022 and the ten dedicated farmers became certified in early 2023. 

Since then, their everyday actions have been improving the ocean environment, helping to manage seabed sediments, and reducing the amount of trash (including fishing gear) by collecting and disposing of it.  

Today, with more environmentally responsible farming processes in place, their five types of eco-friendly ASC-MSC labelled seaweed products are supplied to schools across South Korea and the commercial domestic market through Market Curly, Oasis, Coupang, and others, as well as exported internationally.  

Sustaining the business into the future

YongChil Jang informs us of the cooperative’s plans to get more farmers to become ASC-MSC seaweed certified. 

“We plan to expand the area, up to 1,000 hectares out of the total 3,600, and have invited seven more farmers to attain certification after our surveillance audit in April this year.” 

With more certified farmers, the volume and range of certified products can increase. In turn, market awareness of the programme’s benefits will improve, driving greater demand for ASC-MSC labelled seaweed across South Korea, and overseas. 

For YongChil Jang and the certified farmers of Janghueng Musan Gim Cooperative, restoring and caring for the marine ecosystem they depend upon is a key part of sustaining their business for years to come.  

Their ongoing commitment to more responsible practices is a significant step in the right direction towards improving the public perception of South Korea’s seaweed farming industry. 

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