San Juan, Puerto Rico — Near-record amounts of seaweed are choking Caribbean shores from Puerto Rico to Barbados, killing fish and other wildlife, choking tourism and releasing stinking, noxious gases.
More than 24 million tonnes of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic in June, beating the all-time record set in 2018 by 20%, according to the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Laboratory. And unusually large amounts of brown seaweed drifted into the Caribbean Sea.
A ragged carpet of vegetation recently surrounded an uninhabited island near the French Caribbean territory of Saint-Martin which is popular with tourists, forcing authorities to suspend ferry service and cancel kayaking, paddleboarding and diving excursions in apnea. The normally translucent turquoise waters around Pinel Island have turned into a spiky yellowish-brown slush.
Oswen Corbel, owner of Caribbean Paddling, said he was due to close his St. Maarten business on July 22 and does not expect to reopen until the end of October. He estimates he lost at least $10,000.
“Maybe I should give up. … Sometimes I think I should go to the mountains and herd the sheep, but that’s what I know how to do,” he said. I’m quite scared of global warming.
Scientists say more research is needed to determine why Sargassum levels in the region are so high, but the United Nations Caribbean Environment Program said possible factors include an increase in sea temperature. water due to climate change, as well as nitrogen-laden fertilizers and sewage that feed algae.
“This year has been the worst year on record,” said Lisa Krimsky, an academic researcher with the Florida Sea Grant, a program aimed at protecting the coast. “It’s absolutely devastating for the region.”
She said large masses of algae have a serious environmental impact, with decaying algae altering water temperature and pH balance and leading to declines in seagrass beds, corals and sponges.
“They’re basically muffled,” Krimsky said.
The “golden tide” has also hit humans hard.
The concentration of algae is so high in parts of the Eastern Caribbean that the French island of Guadeloupe issued a health alert in late July. He warned some communities about high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas emanating from huge clumps of rotting algae. The gas, which smells like rotten eggs, can affect people with respiratory problems such as asthma.
The Biden administration declared a federal emergency after the US Virgin Islands warned last month of unusually high amounts of sargassum clogging machinery at a desalination plant near St. Croix that is struggling to produce water and to meet demand in times of drought.
Additionally, the US Virgin Islands Power Plant relies on ultra-pure water from the desalination plant to reduce emissions. The loss of that water would force the government to use a more expensive type of diesel fuel in limited quantities, officials said.
Chuanmin Hu, a professor of oceanography at the University of South Florida who helps produce the seaweed reports, said sargassum levels for the Eastern Caribbean were at near record highs this year, second only to those reported in July 2018. Levels in the northern Caribbean are at their third highest, he said.
Experts first noted large amounts of Sargassum in the Caribbean Sea in 2011, and the problem has occurred virtually every year since then.
“We don’t know if this is a new normal,” Krimsky lamented.
Sargassum eaten in moderation helps purify water and absorb carbon dioxide and is a key habitat for fish, turtles, shrimp, crabs and other creatures. It is also used in fertilizers, foods, biofuels, building materials and medicines.
But it’s bad for tourism and the environment when too much accumulates just offshore or on beaches.
“It’s the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Melody Rouveure, managing director of a travel agency in the Dutch Caribbean territory of St. Maarten, which shares an island with St. Maarten. “It ruined my personal beach plans.”
On Union Island, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the invasion of algae has forced some resorts in recent years to close for up to five months.
Masses of sargassum have also strangled the Caribbean fishing industry. It damages boat engines and fishing gear, prevents fishermen from reaching their vessels and fishing grounds, and leads to fewer fish being caught. Barbados, where beaches are covered in reddish-brown seaweed, was particularly hard hit.
An overabundance of sargassum has been blamed for the recent death of thousands of fish in the French Caribbean island of Martinique. It also has activists concerned about the plight of endangered turtles. Some die at sea, entangled in seaweed or unable to spawn due to the carpet of seaweed on the sand.
In the Cayman Islands, authorities launched a test program in which crews pumped more than 2,880 square feet (268 square meters) of seaweed out of the water. But on Tuesday the government announced it was suspending the project, saying the algae had decayed so much it had made pumping unnecessary.
Some island nations use heavy machinery to remove seaweed from the beach, but scientists warn this causes erosion and can destroy endangered turtle nests.
Many Caribbean islands are in financial difficulty and cannot afford to clean up the large amounts of seaweed.
Governor Albert Bryan of the U.S. Virgin Islands said he asked President Joe Biden to declare a federal emergency for all three islands, not just St. Croix, but that didn’t happen. Bryan said he is now trying to find local funds to clean up the beaches, “but a lot of things need money right now.”
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