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Harvesting the Ocean: Algae Collectors in Peru

Every day, local men and women from Pacasmayo, Peru, spread out along the shore of the town and wade into the ocean to collect algae called cochayuyo. This seaweed has been a part of Peruvians’ daily diet for thousands of years.

Production and consumption of aquatic plants has been increasing globally in recent years. Algae is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet and is also used in medicine. Cochayuyo seaweed contains various minerals such as phosphor, calcium, and magnesium.

One of the main components of cochayuyo is protein. It easy to for the human body to assimilate and contains high levels of essential amino acids, which occur in plant and animal tissue and is important for human health.

Luis Rojas Pita uses a bag of stones to keep him underwater. He prefers using stones instead of weight belt because it's cheaper and he doesn't have to worry about loosing it.

“It’s quite an easy job and I earn enough to support my family. I spend a few hours a day working in the ocean, and then I can stay with my kids for the rest of the day,” says Claudio Rojas Pita, who has worked this job with his brother, Luis Rojas Pita, for over 15 years.

Luis uses a stone belt to keep him underwater. He prefers using stones instead of a weight belt because it's cheaper and he doesn't have to worry about losing it. “If something goes wrong and I need to get to surface, I just cut the belt and leave the stones underwater. If I bought a proper weight belt, I wouldn’t want to leave it on the bottom and lose money,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Marilu Gamba Cardenas and her friends don’t dive at all. They don’t have masks or snorkels, so they collect seaweed with from the water’s surface their hands. It results in lower amounts of cochayuyo, but the women work hard to get as much as possible. They protect themselves from the sun with a few layers of clothes and scarfs on top of old, cracked wetsuits.

Barny Portilla collects cochoyuyo in full diving suit
Cochayuyo, the red algae, is used for Peru's traditional dishes like ceviche and also in medicine.

Cochayuyo is a species native to the southern part of the Pacific Ocean, along the coast of Peru and Chile. It’s the most abundant kind of red algae in Peru. Since pre-Inca times, it’s been widely used in the daily diet, typically consumed fresh, in the coastal and Andean areas.

After three hours of work, Claudio, his brother Luis, and his friend Barny Portilla sit on the beach, relax in the sun, and snack on the fresh cochayuyo straight from their loaded bags. “It’s going to be a good lunch today,” Claudio says. He smiles as he takes a closer look at the octopus he caught while collecting the seaweed. “We’ll use it for ceviche,” he adds.

Peru is the birthplace of world-renown ceviche, a dish of marinated raw fish and other seafood. Fresh cochoyuyuo is often served with ceviche and it comes deep-fried with chicheron de pescado, another popular seafood dish. It is also used in soups, especially in the traditional fish soup called chilcano, stews, and salads or eaten soaked in vinegar.

China, Japan, and some African countries have also eaten seaweed and used it in medicine since ancient times. But according to “The Cambridge World History of Food,” the earliest archeological evidence (from about 2500 B.C.) for the consumption of algae has been discovered along the coast of Peru. Much evidence exists to indicate a marine algae presence here in ancient times.

The local people extract seaweed all year around, but things get harder when winter comes. “In the winter, we freeze after a couple of hours in the cold water, and there is significantly less cochayuyo because of the lower temperature,” says Marilu. “But I don’t complain. I like to spend time in the water,” she adds with a smile.

After working in the ocean, Marilu, who has three children, goes to the market, where she sells the algae to locals. She doesn’t eat a lot of cochayuyo herself. “I prefer to sell it and support my family with the money,” Marilu explains.

Meanwhile Luis, Claudio, and Barny sell their bags of algae to collectors, who later transport it to the capital, Lima, and other towns. One kilogram of mocacho is sold for 3-4 soles (about 1 Eur). In 2-3 hours, the men and women can collect 5-20 kilograms.

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Previously this story or parts of it were published by GEO, Paper Sea, Panthalassa and Kiosque L'édition du Soir. The story was published in 2015.