Sargassum — Another 'weed' problem?

Glenn
Tucker

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

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There are clear signs that I am in my dotage. Maybe this is why the statements of politicians that give others hope seem to fill me with frustration.

One such case is Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett's comments on the so-called seaweed nuisance that has been challenging fishers and tourist interests for years. The minister — who has a lot to be smiling about, these days — spoke of waiting on international advice and some “powerful people” to decide how to proceed.

I did not study marine biology at university, but learned about the Sargasso Sea as a child. The first time I heard about sargassum on our shores, I realised that it must be of some value. I would journey through the junction to the St Mary beaches to collect it to use in my compost. I was pleased with the results and would have returned this year if my car was not 'borrowed' from my home.

Sargassum seaweed is brown alga. These algal plants are home to several varieties of fish and other marine animals. The first thing that fishing and tourism concerns need to know is that it is of importance to the stability of shores and the nourishment of beaches.

I am frustrated because in the year 2019 no one here seems to know anything about this plant apart from the fact that it is blamed for a decline in the aesthetics and recreational activities on beaches in tourist areas. I am frustrated because little Barbados formed a working group on sargassum seaweed to address research, commercial and educational opportunities five years ago! I saw seaweed that was collected and dried to form composted media that was on supermarket shelves and farm stores there in 2014.

Permit me to give a few facts about this plant we call a nuisance:

1. Sargassum has 60 trace minerals and ready-to-use nutrients, including nitrogen, potassium, phosphate (NPK), and magnesium. It also contains hormones to encourage plant growth. Unlike manure, it does not need to decompose. It goes to work immediately, having rapid effects on targeted crop species.

2. It keeps soil moist, reducing the need for water and the regularity with which you weed.

3. Birds, slugs and other pests dislike it and stay away.

4. It improves aeration, delivering nutrients and minerals while preventing fungus and disease.

5. There is potential for its use as an alternative feed in livestock systems in the form of seaweed meal.

I have been aware, for years, of the increased cost of meat and eggs because the feed inputs are all imported. I am also very fond of goats. I will spend a little extra time on this area. Sargassum seaweed is known for its low anti-nutrient content — that is, the presence of substances that do not contribute nutrients to the diet of animals like other novelty or alternative feeds. Also, with its high mineral content it has positive implications for goats which are known to have mineral deficiencies.

Animals that are fed sargassum drink more water, and with the lower degradability of soluble polysaccharides, result in a more neutral rumen environment. 'Bigger' heads tell me that a lower rumen pH reduces methane emissions which may be an indication of the potentially high energy efficiency of sargassum as a feed. Why is this important? More energy-efficient feeds direct more energy into production and so less energy is wasted on methane emission.

The fact that I have known this for years means that it is not rocket science. Why has no other Jamaican jumped on this? Many may say that what I will say next is not related. But I think the link has to do with the way we think and do business. For years we have been criminalising our ganja farmers, mainly at the behest of our neighbours to the north. These men in their fields did all the heavy lifting. When others felt that they had learnt enough from us, the United States simply planted their own and legalised it. Last year, total sales from two states selling medicinal marijuana and three states selling recreational marijuana was more than this county's national budget. And we are still taking away our farmers' ganja and locking them up. My frustration is that, even when we are ahead, we seem to be struggling to catch up. If we are given a large cheque — enough to make us rich for life — we spend the next 10 years examining the signature.

We do not have to plant, fertilise and tend it. All we need to do is harvest it. The presence of this weed on our shores in increasing quantities is not by accident. Nature does not make mistakes. We are using increasing quantities of fertilisers, not thinking that the reduced yields are a result of declining soil health.

Sargassum is the saviour. It can be used as a successful source of calcium and nitrogen to stimulate the soil microbial community, which in turn helps plant growth.

May I suggest the development of a regional surveillance system to track and predict the movement of sargassum. Since it has importance for the stability and nourishment of beaches, the movement of this weed should be coordinated and monitored in such a way as to prevent any adverse environmental effects on the beach. This is the recommendation of people who have studied this 'problem'.

Where is the private sector? And man-a-yaad?

Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and sociologist. Send comments to the Observer or glenntucker2011@gmail.com.


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