Philippines’ Marine scientist pursues 47-yr study, uses of seaweeds

[Philippines] His nearly five decades-long career as a top marine scientist runs parallel to the advancement of commercial seaweed farming in the country.

University of the Philippines Professor Emeritus Gavino C. Trono Jr., now 83, has devoted his life work of 47 years—and still counting—to harnessing the country’s abundant seaweed resources through sound cultivation methods and open economic opportunities, especially for marginalized coastal communities.

Thanks in large part to Trono, seaweed production is now a major industry for an estimated one million Filipinos, mostly small farmers and their families. Seaweed is also one of the country’s top agricultural exports.

On Aug. 12, the esteemed biologist was conferred the title of National Scientist—the highest honor given to the country’s scientists—for his outstanding contributions in seaweed biodiversity, biology, ecology and culture.

Trono has written the two-volume “Field Guide and Atlas of the Seaweed Resources of the Philippines,” considered the most authoritative book on the biodiversity and culture of seaweeds.

His extensive studies on the culture of the most commercially cultivated species Eucheuma denticulatum, Kappaphycus alvarezii, Gracilaria spp., Caulerpa lentillifera and Halymenia durvillei have benefited hundreds of thousands of seaweed farmers.

He is also credited for being largely instrumental in developing commercial farming of Euchema and Kappaphycus. Seaweed farms currently cover some 40,000 hectares, spanning Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

Marine treasure 

Aside from being a food source, seaweeds are a source of colloidal materials vital in the manufacture of a wide range of pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food products.

Its most important component, carrageenan, is used in ice cream, chocolates, custards, cake topping and fillings, milk shakes, yogurts, dessert gel, canned foods, fish gel and sauces, among other things.

It is also used in the manufacture of water-based paints, toothpaste, lotions, shampoos and beer.

The Philippines is a top exporter of dried seaweeds and carrageenan worldwide.

But time was when seaweed use was a negligible economic activity despite the country’s vast coastline, recalled Trono, who started immersing himself in the study of tropical marine phycology (scientific study of algae) in the ’60s.

“I realized at the beginning that our seaweed resources are very important,” Trono told the Inquirer in an interview at his office at the UP Marine Science Institute.

According to Trono, seaweed farming, as an alternative livelihood for fishermen, is “the most economically productive and environment-friendly” means of earning a living in coastal communities.

“In fish culture, only the owner or manager and one or two laborers who maintain the fish cages benefit. But in seaweed farming, thousands of people in the coastal areas benefit. The benefits are more widely spread so more people benefit,” he said.

Modest beginnings 

Trono grew from modest beginnings in Negros Occidental, where he was born in 1931 to parents who were both teachers.

A year after the end of the war, he migrated to Manila and supported himself through high school by shining shoes and selling snacks.

In 1951, he earned admission to the University of the Philippines Diliman, being among the top graduates of Rizal High School.

After getting his degree in Botany in 1954, he went on to earn a masters degree in Agricultural Botany in 1961 at Gregorio Araneta University Foundation in Malabon (now De La Salle Araneta University) while doing part-time work there.

University of Hawaii grant 

Through a grant, he pursued doctorate studies in Marine Botany at University of Hawaii under the late

Dr. Maxwell Doty, one of those credited for introducing commercial seaweed farming in the Philippines.

When the funds from the grant ran out, Trono worked as a graduate teaching assistant to sustain his five-year stay in the university.

When he returned in 1967, he took a teaching post at UP while continuing his research work on seaweeds.

Trono’s expertise was also tapped by international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, which drove him to the Pacific for his research work.

Outstanding scholar 

When he retired from teaching in 2000, he was named UP professor emeritus in 2005 in acknowledgment of his status as an outstanding scholar.

In 2008, he was formally accepted to the country’s top scientific body, the National Academy of Science and Technology.

500 seaweed species 

Trono still lives in the UP campus with wife, Lety, while their three children have their own families and careers.

But there is no stopping Trono from pursuing his passion. He continues to work on several research projects, the lifeblood of an academician. He also jogs around UP and swims.

Even now, he has no problem going on fieldwork with his research assistants and staff.

“A lot more has yet to be discovered. There’s still a large [shortage] in our knowledge of our seaweed resources and the potential of the different species for economic use,” he said.

About 500 seaweed species have so far been documented. Trono has described 25 new species.

But he estimated that between 100 to 200 species have yet to be described.

Industry problems 

“We have very little information on the microscopic species,” he said. “There are many problems in the seaweed industry that require study.”

For one, he said farmers have been using the same seed stocks for the last 40 years, reducing their vigor.

The carrying capacity of the traditional farming sites have also decreased due to environmental degradation.

To help farmers minimize their losses, Trono has studied the cropping schedule in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi; in Danahon Reef in Bohol; and in Calatagan, Batangas.

Very good alternative 

“My main interest now is to determine the periods of schedule of farming for different varieties. Because different varieties have different seasonalities based on specific farming areas,” he said.

His colleagues are working on hybridization to revive seed stocks, he said.

“We also need to develop new farming areas,” he said, citing potential areas in Pangasinan, Sorsogon and Mindoro.

“I’m looking forward to achieving my goal to develop our seaweed resources to benefit our coastal population who live in poverty. Now that our fishery resources are depleted, seaweed farming is a very good alternative,” he said.

“A lot still has to be done. I’m hoping and praying I have several years more of active work, God willing,” Trono said.


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