Basseterre, St. Kitts, August (SKNIS): A monthly report, published by the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab, said that more than 24 million tonnes of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic Ocean in June 2022, up from 18.8 million tonnes in May of the same year, calling it “a new historical record”.
A record amount of sargassum seaweed is blanketing Caribbean coasts from St. Kitts and Nevis to Barbados, from Haiti to the Dominican Republic and beyond. The tonnes of brown algae are killing wildlife, choking the region’s tourism industry, and threatening its blue economy where so many make a livelihood.
The 3rd EU-CELAC Summit that was held in Brussels from 17-18 July, 2023 addressed the troublesome issue placed on the agenda by leaders from the Caribbean and Latin American communities. The summit recognized the problem and placed it in the declaration from the General Secretariat of the Council.
“We recognize that the issue of sargassum significantly impacts the economies, marine flora, fauna, and fishing activities of the entire Greater Caribbean region. We understand the urgent need to present this situation to the United Nations General Assembly, seeking its declaration as a regional emergency,” the declaration stated.
Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Honourable Dr. Terrance Drew, who attended the Brussels summit, weighed in on the issue at a briefing with the press on July 21, 2023.
“This is an emergency,” he said. “We have square miles of seaweed coming off South America, coming this way…some of these square miles are bigger than countries. I was flying into St. Kitts and when I looked out, you just see miles of seaweed just heading to St. Kitts, which means it’s going to affect fishing, the blue economy, our beaches that are an attraction to tourists.”
Scientists are still researching why sargassum levels in the region are reaching new highs. The United Nation’s Caribbean Environment Programme has said that possible factors include a rise in water temperatures as a result of climate change and nitrogen-laden fertilizers and sewage waste fuelling algae blooms.
But, just how is the rising level of sargassum threatening the region’s blue economy?
Fishers have complained that sargassum is strangling the fishing industry, damaging their boat engines and fishing gear, preventing them from reaching their boats and fishing areas, and leading to a drop in the number of fish caught.
Sargassum on the beach in St. Kitts
Because so much of the Region’s tourism is based on sun, sea and sand, those in the leading industry in the Caribbean say that it is bad for the tourism economy, making beaches unsightly and requiring huge clean-up campaigns posing environmental concerns. It has also been affecting snorkeling and scuba-diving, forced some resorts to close, and decaying algae has been altering water temperatures and the pH balance, as well as leading to declines in seagrass, coral reefs and sponge populations.
Also, huge rotting clumps of seaweed produce high levels of hydrogen sulfide which when emanated can affect people with respiratory problems including asthma.
Additionally, activists are concerned about the plight of endangered turtles, with some dying at sea entangled in seaweed or unable to lay eggs given the mat of algae covering the sand.
However, sargassum in moderation helps purify water, absorb carbon dioxide and is a key habitat for fish, turtles and crabs.
Prime Minister Dr. Drew said that countries like St. Kitts and Nevis should be helped with this issue by climate financing.
“This is part of the climate financing that we are asking that this issue be looked at as such and so that the money be placed there to deal with this issue. It’s gonna be challenging to deal with but there must be a solution…At least recognizing it as an emergency and using climate funding to deal with it is a start to help to deal with the matter,” Prime Minister Dr. Drew said.