When our climate seems ripe for cooperation
If anyone had mentioned “sargassum” in a conversation with the average Caribbean person up to about five years ago, perhaps this unusual word would have immediately triggered an expression of bewilderment.
“Sarga what?” would have been a most likely response. The exception, of course, would have been someone who had read the 1966 post-colonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea by the Dominica-born, British author Jean Rhys.
In contrast, just about everyone in this region today is in some way familiar with the word because it speaks directly to a new Caribbean experience. Instead of bewilderment, mention of “sargassum” now brings expressions of frustration and, in some cases, helplessness.
Since the brown seaweed, indigenous to the Sargasso Sea close to Bermuda, started washing up on our shores from about five years ago, it has become a nightmare for the region.
With each passing year, the problem seems to be getting worse. The relentless assault is presenting countries with a major environmental challenge due to the unsightly build-up of seaweed on some beaches and the awful stench it gives off during the drying out process after washing ashore. Worse yet, the problem is posing a serious threat to our economies, at a time when the region can really take no more blows after the ravages of the recent international recession.
Two vital industries in particular – fishing and tourism – are taking a direct hit. When tourists choose to vacation in the Caribbean, a magnet which draws them is the enticing image of clear, turquoise sea water and white sand beaches that offer the ideal setting for rest, relaxation, romance and rejuvenation. The seaweed invasion means that the region sometimes is unable to deliver on this promise. Not only does the seaweed give the water a brownish hue, but, some days, the concentration close to shore makes bathing impossible.
Fishermen are facing particular challenges plying their trade. Having to navigate through thick seaweed going to and returning from the sea exposes the boat engines to costly damage. Then, there is the possibility of coming up empty-handed because large swathes of seaweed can be found sometimes in the ocean in the vicinity of traditional fishing banks. The seaweed is also killing off sea turtles, which, in coming ashore to lay their eggs, run the risk of getting trapped. In Barbados alone, the death count so far for this endangered species is said to be over 40.
The Sargasso Sea is an area in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is quite some distance away from the Caribbean Sea. Therefore, sightings of sargassum weed in the region represented a rare occurrence until recent years.
What could have gone wrong to trigger the change? No one so far has been able to pinpoint the exact cause, but there is a strong possibility that it is tied to climate change, a modern-day challenge to which the Caribbean is particularly vulnerable as a region of small islands surrounded by the sea.
Climate change has been linked to rising sea temperatures and levels as a result of the phenomenon known as global warming. In the latest issue of the journal, Science, 22 leading international marine scientists have renewed concern about the harmful effects which carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial society are having on the oceans, especially marine life. They are warning that unless decisive action is taken at a global level, irreversible damage is the most likely consequence.
In seeking to identify the cause of the sargassum invasion in order to come up with a solution, climate change seems to be the best place to begin. As the problem is regional and shared by just about every country, the existing framework of regional integration provides the ideal setting for pursuing a solution. Indeed, the modern concept of integration has its genesis in European countries coming together in the 1950s to find solutions to common problems. Such collaboration goes by the name of functional cooperation, of which there are already several successful examples involving Caribbean countries.
As we write, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government are meeting in Barbados for their 36th regular annual summit. We are not sure if the sargassum issue is on the formal agenda, but we believe the problem is so critical that it deserves attention at this level because of the serious economic and environmental implications for the region. We are not saying that addressing the crisis should be left to governments alone. However, driving the process certainly requires effective leadership on their part.