Editorial | Tackling the sargassum menace
Those who feel that sargassum weed is nature’s curse being dumped on beaches across the Caribbean, may be comforted by new research which is touting this weed as a potential energy source.
What used to be small deposits of brown seaweed appearing two to three weeks annually, turned into a massive algae bloom in 2011, producing piles of murky, unsightly weed, lingering for months. The ill effects are felt by the entire region: from the Dominican Republic in the north, Barbados in the east, and Mexico in the west, with 2015 and 2018 posing the greatest challenge.
From the foul odour caused by toxic gases emanating from rotting algae to beach erosion, the impact on tourism, fisheries, several shoreline activities and biodiversity has been widely felt. For example, it was reported that in 2018, Caribbean tourism suffered a 35 per cent decline in bookings because of the sargassum problem. Barbados declared a national emergency that year.
The recent mysterious fish kill in Hellshire, St Catherine, has been blamed on the sargassum weed. The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) confirmed what was well known. When sargassum decays, it produces hydrogen sulphide, which accounts for the unpleasant smell; it also expels vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, which can prove deadly for juvenile fish and crabs which seek shelter from predators in these weeds.
NEPA is now organising a clean-up of that beach.
Scientists are predicting that the sargassum phenomenon could become an annual event as warmer oceans struggle to cope with multiple threats. That is not good news for Jamaica and the region, because they are still in search of satisfactory control measures. So far, no one has come up with a solution. All efforts have been very costly, as clean-up activities have to be undertaken with due care so as not to risk damaging the beaches.
In this new research, which was done in Barbados with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank, the team assessed the feasibility of using sargassum weed along with waste water from rum distilleries to produce alternative transportation fuel to replace gasolene and diesel.
The researchers say their findings have important implications for policymakers, for they would directly contribute to the objective of becoming a fossil fuel-free nation by 2030. This is the kind of finding that will capture the imagination of coastal dwellers, tourism interests, as well as the man in the street. We hope Barbados pursues this initiative with vigour.
In 2018, a Sargassum Research Group was formed with The University of the West Indies’ Professor Mona Webber, a noted marine biologist, as head. The group has been exploring the potential of sargassum as a food additive, for use in breast cancer treatment, and as biofuel to power coastal properties. We await their findings. Other regional and international bodies have also been studying ways of exploiting sargassum for industrial and nutritional purposes.
VARIETY OF USES
In the region, countries like Barbados, St Lucia, the Dominican Republic and Mexico have found a variety of uses for sargassum, ranging from fertiliser and livestock feed to building material.
Sargassum weed is expected to be around for a long time. Tourism, heavily battered by the coronavirus pandemic, could be further devastated if solutions are not found to keep this menace from our shores. We feel it is imperative that the region formulates a plan to tackle the influx by urgently identifying funding for an early-warning system and also to support clean-up efforts.
Indeed, we envisage a regional approach that will make use of the burgeoning technologies and promising research findings to guide efforts to turn the sargassum problem into an economic opportunity, whether in agribusiness, livestock, pharmaceuticals or construction.
The people of the region have high expectations that our scientists will collaborate and find technological solutions, and if not, at least suggest ways to use the seaweed to boost the livelihoods of fishermen and other affected persons.
The results of the research are promising, and even though the researchers acknowledged that commercialisation will be a challenge, this hopeful signal may assuage long-term concerns about the negative impact of the weed, particularly on people’s livelihoods.