All that weed…

No, I mean the other sort. Smells worse, and just as much trouble. Piles of brown stinking seaweed, sometimes six feet deep, rot on beaches from Barbados to Belize.

“I don’t think it will affect the tourism in Tobago,” said Tourism Minister Gerald Hadeed this month. 

UWI Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles disagrees. Last Monday, he called sargassum “the greatest single threat to the Caribbean economy I can imagine.” He wants a Sargassum Emergency Agency.

Sun, sand, sea and sargassum? Island economies depend arms, legs and neck on tourism.

But Hadeed says Tobago “is not only the beaches…it is so beautiful and friendly.”

Yes, up to a point. There’s more to life than beaches. Scuba diving, for starters. But stink up the beaches, and you have trouble. If in doubt, check TripAdvisor.

It’s not just the tourists. Fishing boats can’t work in sargassum-choked seas. Corals are smothered. Bacteria from decaying seaweed grab oxygen, leaving little for other life. Seafront residents complain of asthma attacks. 

Sargassum has its fans. It’s “a golden rain forest of the sea,” says Hazel Oxenford, fisheries professor at UWI’s Cave Hill campus. 

Sargassum provides food and shelter for young flying fish, turtle hatchlings, a whole food web. Ten fish species live only in sargassum, among them the cleverly-camouflaged frogfish, which looks like a scrap of seaweed. Onshore, sargassum stabilises beach sand.

There are a hundred-plus types of sea-bed sargassum. Two Atlantic species—natans and fluitans—are different. They spend their entire life cycle afloat. 

Their tangled mats terrified Columbus and his sailors in the Sargasso Sea.

Today, it’s regional tourism chiefs who have the wobblies.

The sargassum explosion started in 2011. Why?

In normal times, floating sargassum has an annual cycle, following nutrient-rich waters from the Gulf of Mexico to seas around Bermuda.

The recent outbreaks are different. Mats form in equatorial waters, between Brazil and Nigeria. From there, sargassum drifts to the Caribbean in teardrop-shaped concentrations, half-a-mile across and maybe four miles long.

If one of those hits your beaches, you’re in trouble. 

In Barbados, they mess up the scenic east coast and the mid-budget south. 

The glitzy west coast, naturally, is just fine.

In Belize, all beaches face east. They have real trouble.

So, why this southern sargassum? The science is not yet clear. But climate change has warmed the sea surface. Replacing rain forest with agriculture has increased the nutrient inflow from the Amazon. 

Years back, I remember teams of steadfast women employed in Barbados to rake up seaweed, and bury it manually on the beach. That was environment-friendly job creation.

Today, some hoteliers panic, using heavy construction equipment to remove sargassum. Machines lack the delicate touch. They scoop up precious beach sand too.

UWI’s Barbados campus organised a sargassum seminar last Monday. Government ministers from three countries turned up. The host country has a well-focussed Coastal Zone Management Unit.

Sue Springer of Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association spoke bravely of turning negatives into positives. She spoke of bussing guests from south coast hotels to the west coast—which sounds fine, until you’ve met Bajan peak-hour traffic. 

Says Springer: “When there’s a hurricane, we have a hurricane plan. We need to have a sargassum plan.” 

Weather watchers last week tracked Hurricane Danny as it moved west. Texas A&M University is now developing a satellite-based early warning system for sargassum.

Julian Francis, St Vincent’s junior works minister, wants to reap the stuff before it hits shore; a 300-metre boom costs around US$80,000. 

Seaweed has a host of uses. For the Japanese it’s a foodstuff. Dried out, it can be fuel or fertiliser. 

It can make pharmaceuticals, or MDF for construction. An ounce of Estée Lauder’s seaweed-based Crème de Mer was selling for US$110 a decade ago.

But as with most Caribbean manufacturing, there are snags. 

There’s way too much sargassum for the beaches—but we do not have the year-round multi-tonne supply needed for volume manufacturing. Nor do we want low-cost but destructive mechanical harvesting.

Niche products by contrast use tiny volumes which won’t clear the beaches; and their edge is in branding and packaging, not the weed.

We have a crisis. And not just in Tobago.

Trinidad & Tobago Guardian