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White nights, bold merman and water braid: How alga is produced in White Sea

August 03, 2017, 10:21 UTC+3 SOLOVETSKY ISLANDS

Alga is produced in Russia only in the Far East and on the Solovetsky Island in the White Sea

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© Sergey Bobylyov/TASS

SOLOVETSKY ISLANDS /Arkhangelsk region/. August 3. /TASS/. The industry-scale production of alga is a rare case, in Russia the business is only in the Far East and on the Solovetsky Island (or Solovki) in the White Sea. TASS correspondent went to the Arkhangelsk factory on Solovki, which next year will celebrate a century's anniversary and which is one of few factories, which produce natural alga, not grow it, and besides, all the processing for pharmaceutical purposes or for cosmetics and food is made also here, right on the spot.

"In this country, alga is produced only in the Far East and here. The product here differs slightly from the alga in the Far East in concentration of alga acid. Our alga has the bigger share of acid, thus the product made here is more valuable," the factory's acting director, Alexei Korotenkov said, while together with the TASS correspondent he was reviewing a production area on the Malaya Muksalma Island of the Solovetsky archipelago.

"We produce and we process. We have three directions: pharmaceuticals, food - dietary supplements of dried fucus or laminaria, and cosmetics. If you look at the international practice in this business, we are the only factory in the world, which has all the three directions at one

place," the director said.

The factory extracts two-three year-old alga, which are most rich in the acid and mannit, which are used for producing pharmaceutical materials. At this age, alga is most rich in unique poly-carbohydrates, micro and macro elements, amino acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamins. The factory's alga acid and alginates are on sale in Russia, Germany, France and the US. The enterprise does not sell raw material.

Mowing alga

The production season in the White Sea near Solovki depends greatly on the weather, and lasts usually from three and a half to four months a year. "We usually begin mowing from mid-July to about late September, depending on the weather," the director said. "This year, the summer

came very late and we could not begin working for quite a time. On other occasions, bad weather would not allow just going into the sea."

The mowers go into the sea on special boats (karbas), which the locals have used for many centuries. The alga is collected by hand from the depth of 5-6 meters. It is mowed by dragas - shortened scythes with attached nails. As people on board the boat see suitable plants in the

water, they cut them with the scythes and then pull them up to hang on the boat's boards.

"Unlike other countries, which produce the plants artificially and crop with special equipment, we produce wild alga - the product which the nature gives to us. We collect it by hand - this method is absolutely safe both for the alga and for the nature," he continued.

As the producers collect the amount they needed, they head for the shore and cranes take the plants, now packed in sacks, off the boats.

However, this is not end of a shift. It is most important the alga is now hanged for drying on special devices. Those are wooden poles with attached hooks - they are installed along the entire shore of the island.

"The alga dries up within 24 hours, sometimes the drying may take three days. The biggest threat for the drying is rain, or fog or the northern wind, which brings damp air. Unsalted water washes out valuable substances, first of all mannit. In case of rains, we have to cover the alga with tents or take it off and hide," the director said.

The factory plans installing special drying equipment to lower risks of losing the valuable material, he added.

Working off civilization

At the factory's four production areas in different parts of the Solovetsky archipelago and near Karelia 70 people are working. They come to the islands to work for the summer season, and in winter the camp is idle. "People live here not permanently, only four months a year. They come from Ukraine, Belarus, from Russian regions - Arkhangelsk and other, some come even from Krasnodar (in the south)," the director said.

"The main share of workers are those skilled and experienced - they make about 20%, and the rest 70-80% are newcomers. Some would not manage the work, as not everyone is able to work in these risky conditions," he said. Southerners find it difficult to get used not only to the weather conditions, but also to the unusual fauna. On Solovki, people tell the story about a man who came from Ukraine and began panicking as a seal jumped out of water next to his boat - the man was sure it was a merman - a bold old man with mustache. The pinniped in the White sea are not afraid of the alga producers - they continue relaxing on the stones even when a motor boat is passing by, and sometimes they would swim to the boats to jump out of the water.

The season workers may get food and accommodation at the camp on the shore. "Some come here with families, as a rule those workers have the highest production results," the director said. Wives would work at the canteen, help drying the plants, organize the life. The severe

northern climate and the short summer would not allow regular agriculture, but people in the camp plant the simplest vegetables - cucumbers, radish, parsley.

The electricity in the camp is produced by a diesel generator, which works on demand. The cam does not have a plumbing system. The houses are heated by ovens. "For this model of production process, the living conditions are normal, and the rest depends on the people," he said.

Work, which depends fully on weather

The money the workers receive depend on production. "We have raised the cost of one kilo of dried alga from 23 rubles ($0.38) to 30 rubles ($0.5)," the director said. One worker may sell ten tonnes of plants a season, the record was eleven tonnes. The total amount of alga

produced within one season is about 1,000 tonnes. Thus, the dried alga makes about 16-180 tonnes.

"If we lived in Africa, we would have produced more, but the weather would not let us - going into the sea is not possible every day, sometimes we have to be on hold for a few days. Of 120 days in the season, we have about 60 good days suitable for work. High-skilled professionals may work in storms, so they may have even 80 working days," a worker told TASS.

Catching up with the work after bad weather days is possible during the day-lit northern nights. In good weather in the white-nights season, producers go to the sea twice a day. In June and July there are practically no nights at the White Sea: even when the sun goes down the horizon for a short time, the sky remains lit, and seeing through water is as easy as during the day - right to the bottom.

Besides good weather, workers have to wait hours for the low tide.

"Going in the sea should be in low water, it is easier to see the alga then, and in high water seeing through is not that easy," the director said. "Here, we have two waters a day."

No-waste production cycle

The dried alga is sent to Arkhangelsk for further processing. "Here, the work is as follows: from June to late September we produce the alga, and from October to May we process it," the director explained.

"We collect the plants, dry them up and in sacks of 20kg send them to the processing facility."

"The processing is in fact the extraction. The alga is uploaded into a reactor, and the first extraction is with alcohol, here we extract mannit. The second extraction is alginates," he said.

The main substances from the brown seaweed are - laminaria concentrate (used for dietary supplements and in cosmetics), copper products of chlorophyll (used widely in medicine and cosmetology), alga acid (pharmaceutical and other industries) and mannit (a pharmaceutical

substance, a part of vital medications). The production cycle practically has no waste, the director said.

"With alkali and alcohol we extract the components we need," he said. "The remaining dry alga is powdered to be used as a dietary supplement, including for feeding animals."

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