Countries throughout the Caribbean now share an ugly, smelly problem — and officials don’t really know what to do about it.
The problem — which is a type of seaweed known as sargassum — is only going to get worse this month, according to scientists. In the meantime, the record-high level of sargassum is killing fish, disturbing local ecosystems, dampening tourism, and making life difficult for local residents.
“This year has been the worst year on record,” said Lisa Krimsky, a university researcher with Florida Sea Grant, according to the Associated Press. “It is absolutely devastating for the region.”
Consider, for example, the case of Oswen Corbel, owner of Caribbean Paddling in St. Martin. Corbel was forced to close his business on July 22 and doesn’t expect to be able to reopen until late October, leading to at least $10,000 in lost revenue, the Associated Press reports.
“Maybe I should give up,” Corbel said, according to the Associated Press. “Sometimes I think I should go into the mountains and herd sheep, but this is what I know to do.”
A Special Type Of Seaweed
Sargassum is a brown alga, or seaweed. Unlike other seaweeds, it floats freely in the ocean rather than being attached to the ocean floor. These free-floating forms create their own ecosystem and provide a habitat for more than 240 species of fish and invertebrates, according to the Government of the Virgin Islands.
The problem with sargassum is that it eventually washes ashore. The tangles of seaweed can be miles long, and there may be tens of thousands of weeds tangled around themselves.
When these mounds reach the coast, it’s not only unsightly, but would-be swimmers can’t get past sargassum mounds to get into the water and small boats are unable to leave ports.
The biggest downside when sargassum washes ashore is that “it produces a sulfur-like smell making it extremely unpleasant for any nearby beachgoers and typically leads to many avoiding the beach completely,” according to Sargassum Monitoring Network.
As the sargassum decomposes, it not only smells bad and attracts insects, it causes environmental problems,” according to the University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab. For example, it can also smother turtle nesting sites, increase sea turtle mortality rates, and cause fish kills.
This Year’s Problem
Large amounts of sargassum have appeared in the Caribbean Sea every summer since 2011, except in 2013, according to the University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab. This year, more than 24 million tons of sargassum were spotted in the Atlantic Ocean in June, breaking the all-time record by 20 percent.
Since then, it has caused numerous large-scale issues. For instance, in St. Martin, companies like Corbel’s Caribbean Paddling have had to suspend kayaking, paddle boarding, and snorkeling tours because the normally turquoise waters in the area are now a “prickly yellowish-brown slush,” according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration declared a federal emergency for the U.S. Virgin Islands after sargassum clogged machinery at a desalination plant near St. Croix. That water is necessary for the people who live there as well as to efficiently run the electricity generating station.
The abnormally high level of sargassum has also been blamed for the death of thousands of fish in the French Caribbean island of Martinique. Activists there are also concerned about endangered turtles because some die at sea when they become entangled in the sargassum while others are unable to lay their eggs on the beach because the sargassum covers the beach.
Steps To Remedy The Situation
Unfortunately, no one in any country really knows what to do about the sargassum.
For instance, some countries and beachfront property owners use heavy machinery to remove seaweed from the beach. That approach is not only cumbersome, but scientists note that it leads to beach erosion and may destroy endangered turtles’ nests.
In the Cayman Islands, officials tried a different approach: Pumping the sargassum back out into the ocean. Last week, however, the government announced it was forced to stop the project because the decomposing sargassum had clogged the pumps.
You can learn more about how Mexico is dealing with sargassum in Disgusting Problem On Mexico’s Caribbean Beaches Called ‘Alarming’ and Mexico’s Stinky Beach Problem To Be Resolved Soon – Hopefully.
You can learn more about the endangered sea turtles in Love Sea Turtles? These Colored Lights Along Florida’s Coast Are Helping Save Them and Florida Towns Are Asking Residents And Visitors To Close Blinds, Turn Off Lights, Here’s Why.