Brie Cokos ’01: Seaweed Farmer in Belize
Brie Cokos '01 collects
samples for analysis - "a rough day at the office,"
Shunning the more traditional job tracks followed by most Ivy League
graduates, Brie Cokos ’01 has taken up seaweed farming
It’s a good place for it: Not only does seaweed flourish
in the Belizean waters, but the locals lust after seaweed cocktails,
believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. The stuff
has export potential, too.
Cokos first went to Belize for an internship for her biology major.
She worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society and studied coral
reef degradation from algae overgrowth. “I was left to fend
for myself on a private island, Middle Caye, off the coast of Belize,”
Cokos says. “It was really a culture shock, and initially
I hated it, but after a while it grows on you — the Robinson
Crusoe existence. Now, I can’t get enough of the sea and ecology
of the islands.”
After graduation, Cokos was hired by WCS and returned to Belize.
While she was working to figure out why algae was overrunning the
coral, she learned that a certain algae — the sea grass —
is prized in the region and has usefulness beyond it.
The seaweed grows like tumbleweed underwater, and is easily harvested
by fishing it out. The locals have been doing just that for some
time; gathering up the local supply, drying it out and feeding it
into the blender as the key ingredient in their seaweed shakes.
Cokos in her lab on
Middle Caye, filtering decalicified algae for analysis.
Cokos gave it a try, hauling in some sea grass from around the
island where she was working, soaking it in her tub overnight and
stringing it around her balcony to dry. She then sold it to vendors,
who pulverize it and mix it with condensed milk, cinnamon, nutmeg
and other flavors. Rum raisin is a favorite of the locals, Cokos
reports. Papaya is another. And peanut also is very popular. “Peanuts
also are thought to be an aphrodisiac,” she says. “So
peanuts and seaweed is a double whammy.”
The problem is that because seaweed is so popular, it has been
depleted in waters around the more accessible regions of Belize.
There’s plenty of it further out in the water, for example
on the island about 35 miles off the coast where Cokos was working,
but the high cost of gasoline prevents most from making the boat
trip out there. Enter: seaweed entrepreneurs.
Because of her marine know-how, Cokos was introduced to two Belizean
men who had founded a nonprofit organization, the Dangriga Development
Initiative, which aims to develop alternative sources of income
for local residents. Cokos joined them in a seaweed farming venture
on the Belizean islands of Tobacco Caye Range on the Atlantic Barrier
Reef. With her partners’ business sense and her algae know-how,
along with some seed funding from a local U.N. organization, COMPACT,
Cokos and her partners designed a way for local fishermen —
and anyone else needing supplementary income — to cultivate
and harvest the plant. “Even though the market is there and
people love seaweed and sell it all over town, this had never been
done,” says Cokos, who continues to consult with the WCS as
well as do odd jobs to support herself while the seaweed project
Cokos set up an underwater test plot to figure out how best to
grow the plant. Then, she and her partners pitched the process to
potential local seaweed farmers. The work of raising seaweed is
not complicated and is done in shallow, slow-moving waters right
outside the farmers’ front doors, so nearly anyone can participate,
Cokos says. She and her partners provide farmers with the basic
seaweed farm setup and seedlings (taken from far off coast, not
from the disappearing local supply); then, every two months, after
the seaweed is harvested, they collect it and pay the farmers about
$500, decent money for Belize.
Freshly picked seaweed
soaks overnight in Cokos' bathtub in Dandriga Town.
The group’s goal is to set up 25 individual farms and to
package and market the seaweed to larger companies in Belize and
abroad that Cokos and her partners believe would be using more seaweed
if they had a steady supply. American companies have already shown
interest, and the price of exports to the U.S. is four times what
the seaweed fetches in Belize. In addition to consumer uses, the
carrageenan from seaweed can be used as a natural thickening agent
for food and other products, such as paint and cosmetics, Cokos
says. The Philippines already is cashing in on the plant, and a
glance at some food labels will prove that many people have already
had a dose.
The team recently pitched the project for further funding to COMPACT,
which promotes projects that support sustainability of the Atlantic
Once the venture is fully up and running, Cokos would ideally
like to spend part of the year in Belize and part back home in the
States. In the meantime, being a seaweed farmer gives one a certain
cachet in Belize. “When I tell people I’m involved with
seaweed production,” Cokos says, “they have raised eyebrows
and say, ‘Really?!’ ”
For more about seaweed farming and life in Belize, please log
and click on the article entitled, “Got Seaweed?” Cokos
has several other articles on the site, as well.