Sar­gas­sum sea­wed over­load-Chance for Dis­cov­ery and Prepa­ra­tion

June 2018 has been the top month in the last decade for Sar­gas­sum bloom­ing, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By David Venn

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 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 in to 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 started ly­ing down on his chest and pad­dle-board­ing 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 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 in­vari­ables. 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 odour. The harm­ful con­se­quences that de­rive from the al­gae, af­fect tourism, fish­ing and the life of a fam­ily who just want to go to the damn beach on a Sun­day af­ter­noon. Espe­cially if you are a fam­ily liv­ing in the south 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. The govern­ment has also been in­volved with the clean-up process, due to the aus­ter­ity. The Uni­ver­sity of South Florida pub­lishes 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).

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.

In Praslin, Cleus Em­manuel and his co-worker were con­tracted by the Min­istry to clear up the sea­weed at the lo­cal beach. An ex­ca­va­tor is con­trolled by one of the men, scoop­ing up sand, dirt and sea­weed and plac­ing it all into large piles on land. Once the pile is big enough, they load it into a dump truck and fill it all the way to the brim. Cleus says that in one beach clean­ing, they can fill over 20 loads with the filth. Still, the Fish­eries Depart­ment does not have a sus­tain­able plan for the clean up process. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Of­fi­cer Yvonne Ed­win says that “be­cause of the ex­tent [of the prob­lem], there was an ac­tion plan,” and that the min­istry has no des­ig­nated or as­signed fund­ing for the project, long term. How­ever, a press re­lease state­ment from the Min­istry, says that “govern­ment has made avail­able re­sources to fi­nance the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a Sar­gas­sum Sea­weed Man­age­ment Plan.” De­tails re­gard­ing 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.

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, Saint 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 its web­site.

Du­jon says that cur­rently Al­gas Or­gan­ics is pick­ing up about 30 tonnes each month but, by the year's 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 Saint Lu­cia”. This may be a vi­able and po­ten­tial propo­si­tion for Saint Lu­cia and the rest of the is­lands in the Caribbean. But Du­jon says that th­ese ef­forts alone can­not clear up all the sar­gas­sum.

“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 about learn­ing to pre­pare 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 start to 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.

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.

Den­ver Fanus’ boat, tied off far from the shores of Mi­coud.

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