Sargassum seaweed 2
It floats ashore faster than we can move it; it mutates at an undetermined rate and neither layman nor scientific expert can agree on whether it is a nuisance or a goldmine. Of course, we are talking about Sargassum Seaweed. On the second part of my journey Across Town, I went coast to coast to get a full understanding of the magnitude of the issue. I’ve also studied the results of a recently-held think tank that, when published, may cause Barbadians to think differently about the floating weed.
My first stop was Bath Beach in St John where the impact of the seaweed has created a sand bank or sort of sharp step where the waves cannot break on the shore as the seaweed batters a wedge into the sand. Out to sea, the view is even drearier, as the fast multiplying free-floating weed lingers at or just below the surface, casting a murky pall on the typically rough waters. Further along the coast, there is a bank of seaweed as long and wide as a medium sized parking lot, creating a visual island from land to shore. Much like the sea that gave the weed its name: The Sargasso Sea.
According to the National Ocean Service of the United States Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “The Sargasso Sea, located entirely within the Atlantic Ocean, is the only sea without a land boundary. It is a vast patch of ocean named for a genus of free-floating seaweed called Sargassum. While there are many different types of algae found floating in the ocean all around world, the Sargasso Sea is unique in that it harbors species of sargassum that are ‘holopelagi’ – this means that the algae not only freely floats around the ocean, but it reproduces vegetatively on the high seas. Other seaweeds reproduce and begin life on the floor of the ocean.” (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov).
The site goes on to list the different types of marine life that have adapted to that specific ecosystem and they thrive, find homes and a safe place to reproduce there; notably crab, shrimp, fish and turtles. Sadly, this does not translate to the waters off Barbados – the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The effect on marine life – endangered species of nesting turtles in particular – has been quite the opposite. Not to mention how this aggressive weed is drastically changing the coastal landscape of Barbados, particularly the north and south east coasts.
Which brings me to my next stop Across Country: Bottom Bay in St. Philip. There, the rough surging tide has created an even sharper division between sand and surf, and in between a thick bank of sargassum seaweed. The beach itself is long and wide, so there is still some room to manoeuvre, but it would take the bravest of souls and the strongest
of swimmers to get past the floating masses of weed that simmer just past the breakwater, into relatively clear but choppy sea.
In Consett Bay, I found a gem of an old timer named Earl Watson who grew up in the area and admitted that over the past three or four years, there has been “moss” coming up on the beach but never in these quantities. His concern is for the fishermen navigating their boats in and out of the water.
“It is very, very annoying to fishermen because it makes steering a boat difficult; for the outboard engines, it affects the engine when the moss gets up into the engine. Here at the slip away when boats are about to be hauled out of the water, you have to get the tractor to push it away and make a path for the boats to pass.” he explained.
Along with the all too familiar complaint about the fetid stink of the seaweed as it piles up along the beach, Mr. Watson has also noticed that some sort of oxidation occurs when boats that have been cutting through the sargassum return to shore. “It gives off a toxin which turns the colour of the paint on the boat. Where the boats were white, it turns green [and] where there was yellow…, it turns black.” he observed. But Mr. Watson’s primary irritant was that having established what the weed is, where is it coming from? And what are we doing about it?
Some of those answers may be found in a recently concluded Sargassum Hack, hosted jointly by the Caribbean Sustainability Collective (CSC) and the UWI Cave Hill Campus’ Student Entrepreneurial Empowerment Development (SEED). Participants probed the possibilities of using the seaweed to create products and services with economic, social and environmental benefits. Students, faculty, alumni, international researchers and members of the public formed a working group tasked with developing commercial, educational, and research opportunities from what is being perceived as a challenge facing Barbados and the wider Caribbean.
Despite what beach goers, tourists and those concerned with preserving the marine environment call a blight, a nuisance and a real danger to tourism and endangered marine life, Deputy Dean of Outreach & Research at UWI Cave Hill’s Faculty of Science & Technology Dr. Jeanese Badenock says we are thinking of the sargassum influx in entirely the wrong way. “The seaweed could be a possible gold mine for therapeutic products that could transform (the local) economy,” said Dr Badenock, whose research focuses on synthesis of pharmaceuticals.
And for those whose constant cry is: ‘what is being done about it’? Discussants blamed climate change, shifting currents and oceanic pathways, among other reasons, for the recent marine development and noted that the unrelenting spread of floating algae was widely seen as ‘problematic’ and ‘troublesome’, a notion which they aimed to debunk.
Dr. Maya Trotz from the Environmental Engineering Faculty at the University of South Florida, revealed that her colleagues in marine science have been using remote sensing and satellite imagery to investigate the sargassum seaweed’s linkage with climate change.
These academic solutions at this stage may be of little comfort to the staff at the Crane Hotel who watch helplessly as fewer tourists come to the beach to sunbathe (choosing not to brave the bank of sargassum between them and the water); or the fishermen in Consett Bay whose boats are often trapped in the seaweed with no way to go out to sea or return to land; or the Long Bay residents who search through the seaweed to rescue hawksbill, leatherback and green turtles whose path to the water and nesting sites lie under two to three feet of sargassum seaweed. Some turtles never make it out alive. At last count,
the Barbados Sea Turtle Project reported the death toll of full grown and juvenile turtles at 42.
But there is hope for all beset by this phenomenon. With think tanks like the Sargassum Hack churning out solutions that include useful mulch and fertilizer for farmers, it is now for those charged with the responsibility of implementing these solutions that the public wishes to do so with dispatch. And for those unwilling to wait for the ‘official response’, even as this article goes to print, there are plans to form a charity headed by businessman and entrepreneur Gabriel Abed to find ways to save our endangered sea turtle population from the effects of Sargassum seaweed. I’ll chat with him in a few weeks to see how his efforts are going.
However you look at it, this phenomenon and its many effects will be a complex, choreographed dance between Mother Nature and Father Time. I’ll be here next week where I go About Town for a taste of Crop Over.