Sihanoukville authorities and fisheries department officials confiscated more than 96 tons of seaweed transported from Kampot province on Saturday that was destined for export to international markets, officials said.
But the move to stop Kampot Seaweed Co from transporting seaweed was branded by the Kampot governor as an attempt to stifle competition in the increasingly lucrative industry.
“It was illegal [for Kampot Seaweed Co] to collect seaweed with no permission and no license from the fisheries department,” said Nao Thouk, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s fisheries department.
“We confiscated the product, and we will fine money,” Nao Thouk said.
But Kampot Governor Puth Chandarith said Tuesday that Kampot Seaweed Co is competing legally.
The company has approval from Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun, he said, and its haul of seaweed was only confiscated because it lacked a transport license.
“Kampot [Seaweed Co] is the company doing legal business,” Puth Chandarith said. “It is a legal business. Here is a free market. I won’t allow for a…monopoly.”
Cambodian seaweed exports have grown rapidly in the past few years, jumping from 6,000 tons in 2003 to 16,000 tons in 2004. They are expected to increase to 20,000 tons this year, Nao Thouk said.
The price of dry seaweed has increased from 1,050 riel per kilogram in 2003 to 1,500 riel per kilogram today.
With Cambodian seaweed selling for $300 per ton on the international market, a gross profit of about $6 million is expected this year.
Three firms in Kampot harvest seaweed on 9,000 hectares of sea. They employ about 1,500 families.
Cambodian seaweed is currently being exported to Malaysia, South Korea and European countries, Nao Thouk said.
From raw seaweed, companies are able to make more than 100 products, including cosmetics, shampoos, and desserts.
The first company to plant seaweed in Cambodia was Korean-owned Star Private, which was established in 1999. Today it employs about 700 farmers.
Contacted by telephone, an executive at the company complained that Kampot Seaweed Co was not competing fairly and had been luring away contract farmers from his company.
“We are the one legal business. They collect our product from our contract farmers. It is not fair,” the exporter said.
Officials from Kampot Seaweed Co were not available for comment on Tuesday.
Nao Thouk said that the government was encouraging the seaweed industry, which helped reduce illegal fishing and also did not harm the environment .
“I think seaweed is much better than fishing,” he said. “I can see that seaweed farmers are getting richer.”