Region faces another sargassum seaweed invasion

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Sargassum seaweed washed ashore on a Barbados beach, File photo

By Caribbean News Now contributor

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — According to statistics from the University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab and based on historical bloom patterns, it has been predicted that in the coming months, there is a high chance that sargassum seaweed in the Caribbean will continue to occur in high volumes until at least August and possibly exceed the historical record in 2015.

Since 2011, excessively large quantities of sargassum have accumulated in the Caribbean Sea, only to wash ashore in several Caribbean countries. Massive sargassum seaweed blooms are becoming increasingly frequent in the Caribbean. The seaweed covers the beaches in huge, stinking blankets that sometimes measure up to ten feet in depth.

The seaweed creates an extreme lack of oxygen in the sea close to shore, killing off native species and resulting in dead zones by first robbing the water of nutrients before they die and absorbing oxygen out of the water to decompose. It fouls the beaches, not just for the visiting tourists who contribute to the local economies, but also for several endangered species of marine turtles. The turtles have to dig through several feet of seaweed to lay their eggs or climb beyond the seaweed mats to find clear sand. Later, their hatchlings get entangled in the seaweed on their way to the ocean and die.

In Barbados, the situation is being treated as a national emergency, prompting the deployment of the Barbados Defence Force (BDF) in response.

Prime Minister Mia Mottley explained that, in normal circumstances, the BDF did not become involved in civil matters and said the programme’s intention was to move from a situation of crisis intervention to one of economic activity.

In the British Virgin Islands, acting deputy chief conservation and fisheries officer, Mervin Hastings, has urged residents to utilise the sargassum seaweed that is also being washed up along the territory’s shorelines.

Sargassum seaweed used as a fertiliser in the BVI

Hastings said although the seaweed has an offensive smell, officials at the ministry of natural resources and labour and the conservation and fisheries department are encouraging residents to utilise the seaweed because of its many environmental benefits. He said the farming community can make use of this free resource in gardens and used as fertilizer or mulch.

He said, “The sargassum seaweed provides a food source, home and shelter to an amazing variety of marine species (plants, shrimps, crabs, birds, fish, turtles, etc.). sargassum also aids in creating sand dunes which helps in restoring eroded beaches and can also serve as biofuel and landfill.”

He noted the sargassum seaweed in water is harmless, but that hydrogen sulfide is released when it lands on the beach and starts to decompose. He said the “rotten eggs” smelling gas is colourless, poisonous and highly flammable.

He said, however, there is no need for residents to be concerned, as the gas is only harmful to health in concentrated amount in contained spaces and not well ventilated spaces like beaches. He added that prolonged exposure in the open may trigger eye irritation as well as respiratory problems. Groups at risk are persons with respiratory problems, asthma patients, elderly people, babies and pregnant women.

On the east coast of Saint Lucia, a local youth by the name of Johanan Dujon noticed how the piles of seaweed were causing trouble for the local fishermen by damaging their equipment and boat engines, as well as complicating their daily lives by making landing difficult upon return from fishing trips.

Sargassum seaweed in Saint Lucia

The budding entrepreneur recognized an opportunity to capitalize on this freely available resource to create valuable organic agricultural inputs, which could in turn reduce and eventually replace the environmentally harmful synthetic chemicals used to grow food in Saint Lucia.

In 2014, Dujon founded Algas Organics and began experimentation with formulations to make this idea a reality. Dujon successfully formulated the Algas Total Plant Tonic after several rounds of experimentation in 2015. This all-natural, seaweed-based bio-stimulant optimizes plants’ nutrient uptake through strong root development.

Algas Organics and the Saint Lucia Fisher Folk Cooperative Society Ltd have removed over 298 tonnes of wet seaweed from the beaches in eastern Saint Lucia since the start of the partnership in 2015. This has provided a livelihood for six local community members, who have been trained in harvesting and drying techniques, as well as fertilizer processing, packaging, and quality control. The product has since become well known in Saint Lucia’s agriculture sector and was recently introduced to Barbados.

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