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Solving Sargassum

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Denver Fanus' boat sitting off the shore.

This article was originally seen in the St. Lucia Star.

Denver Fanus has fished off the Micoud docks since he was a child. Over 20 years in the business, he has never been forced to take such intense measures as he must now to get his job done. So often has his boat been stuck in seaweed that he must now secure it far from the dock, and swim to it every time he sets out to fish. Between a series of vibrant boats in the dreary ocean-seaweed hybrid, there is a white, tattered paddle board floating stagnant, over six metres out into the water.

According to Denver, that’s as far out as he can go without submerging his entire lower body into the muddy concoction of seaweed and silt. The supplemental irritation and rashes caused by the sargassum seaweed are enough reason for him to have to lie down on his chest and paddle-board the rest of the way to his boat. Once he gets there, the deep-sea fisher clears up the seaweed surrounding his boat, and heads out to the open water, where he says the situation is even worse. On his return, he must carry his catch on top of his head to shore.

The Sargasso Sea is the direct opposite of landlocked. The spiralling whirlpool is bound by a number of currents, sealing the subtropical gyre to a mass of water in the Atlantic Ocean, far off the coasts of Caribbean islands and coastal America. It is inhabited by a variety of aquatic species, providing the essentials of life to turtles, endangered eels and more. Sargassum, the liberal, free spirited seaweed that forms in the cyclonic sea, is a necessity for the lives of sea creatures and is vital to the ocean’s ecosystem — as natural organisms are. But much like anything else in life, an overbearing amount can cause problems.

This species of seaweed started washing up on the shores of the Caribbean in small doses prior to 2011 and soon became a trending topic thanks to its destructive tendencies. Although Sargassum acts as an all-encompassing administer for sea-life, too much of it can eventually smother its inhabitants, breed insects and emit a pungent odor. The harmful consequences that derive from the algae affects tourism, fishing and the life of a family who just wants to go to the damn beach on a Sunday afternoon. Especially if you are a family living in the southern side of the island.

The eastern coasts of Dennery, Praslin and Micoud are covered with seaweed. Fishermen like Denver, have come up with different ways of dealing with the problem — and you can pretty much forget about family outings to the beach. Over the past few months, the government has also gotten involved with the cleanup process, due to the seaweed’s severity.

The University of South Florida has published satellite images from each year, starting in 2011 during the months between January and June, showing a heat map of the areas covered by sargassum. This is otherwise known as the Satellite-based Sargassum Watch System (SaWS). June 2018 is now the highest recorded blooming month for sargassum in the Caribbean Sea since three years prior, by over 250 per cent.

In late May and early June of this year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries Department and other community, ministry and collective stakeholders conducted meetings regarding the abundance of seaweed accumulating on the east coast. The severity of the seaweed this year — and specifically in June — forced them to take action against the seaweed. In Praslin, Cleus Emmanuel and his co-worker were contracted by the Ministry to clear up the seaweed at the local beach. Cleus says that in one beach cleaning, they can fill over 20 dump truck loads with the filth.

However, the Fisheries Department does not have a sustainable plan for the cleanup process. The details of the longevity of this plan are unclear. For now, farmers around the region have been graciously accepting the seaweed as fertilizer for their crops. Emmanuel says lots of the seaweed gets put to use, and the rest of it gets dumped. This however, has been going on for years.

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About ten years ago, Cavendish Atwell, a Barbadian entrepreneur, started preparing sargassum as fertilizer and sold it in local stores. Atwell, who is nearing 90 years old, has since stopped production, saying that it’s become too much of a hassle and should be left to a larger company or the government, to excavate and upcycle the seaweed. “We should be exporting [sargassum] as fertilizer,” says Atwell. “I know it makes a very, very good fertilizer.”

Well, St. Lucian entrepreneur Johanan Dujon must’ve heard Atwell’s message, because in 2014, he founded Algas Organics—a company that collects and reproduces sargassum seaweed as fertilizer, selling it across the Caribbean and other parts of North America. The company is the Caribbean's first biotech company whose “focus is the development of environmentally-friendly agricultural inputs,” according to their website.

Dujon says that currently, Algas Organics is picking up about 30 tonnes each month, but by the years end, that number will jump to 300 tonnes per month. He says that Algas is helping put “a serious dent in what is arriving in St. Lucia”. This may be a viable and potential proposition for St. Lucia and the rest of the islands in the Caribbean. But Dujon says that these efforts alone cannot clear up all the sargassum.

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“Our interest is the incoming material, which we are ready to collect so that it doesn’t pile up again,” Dujon says, regarding the collection process. Which, in turn, means that the government’s job of gathering the seaweed, in addition to Algas Organics’ efforts, can clear up an extremely large portion of the blooming sargassum. But only if the Ministry is able to find appropriate funding for the long-term.

According to University of South Florida’s professor of optical oceanography, Chuanmin Hu, this is exactly what needs to be conducted by countries affected by sargassum. Hu says that attempting to find a solution to the mass blooming that occurs every year is not the answer; it’s more so about learning to prepare for and work with it.

“That’s just nature - just like a hurricane,” says Hu. “Can you solve a hurricane? Can you prevent a hurricane? No, there is no way. But you can better prepare for the hurricanes.” Hu says that this isn’t just some cheap trend. The sargassum is most likely here to stay for the foreseeable future – that is, until scientists can figure out exactly why the seaweed is growing so quickly. “There is no answer,” Hu says. “Climate change, river discharge, temperature change, ocean circulation change – there is speculation; no evidence.”

This means that people who work in the fishing industry, like Denver, will have to learn how to cope with the seaweed, and use it to their advantage. As Hu and Denver point out, the sargassum can be beneficial to fishers, as they are a hub for small fish and other sea life.

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Hu offers potential suggestions for preventative and coping measures that can be used by fishermen to help mitigate damage done to their businesses. He proposes that real-time satellite images can help predict and find patches of seaweed in order to better prepare for the incoming blooms. He also proposes speculation about the possibility of using the seaweed for biofuel in the future. Why rule anything out at this point?

For now, sargassum is still quite the mystery, but there are already measures and solutions in place that have been proven to work to a certain extent. These preparations and solutions need to be made sustainable and practically feasible. Because although sargassum is labelled and recognized as a hassle, it contains potential benefits and is predicted to continue washing up on Caribbean shores for years to come.

Tagged in : Environment, Caribbean, Saint Lucia, North America, News, Atlantic

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  1. David Venn
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