Sargassum threatens regional industries
Sargassum on a beach in St Martin

Sargassum now at record levels or near 25 million tonnes blanketed on Caribbean coastlines has threatened to negatively impact key industries of the region.

Experts who first noticed large amounts of sargassum in the Caribbean Sea since 2011 have said that the problem has occurred practically every year since then and is now up to this year elevated some 20 per cent above that of the pre-pandemic era.

The brown algae when at moderate levels help to purify water, absorb carbon dioxide and is a key habitat for fish and other marine creatures. Now being declared an environmental emergency by experts, "the golden tide", as it is being referred, has become devastating for the region, affecting economies and industries such as tourism and fishing.

Within the fishing industry its weeds has begun to damage fishing engines and gears, preventing fisherfolk from accessing their tools and ultimately resulting in reduced catch of fish stocks.

"Barbados had been especially hit hard since flying fish make up 60 per cent of the island's annual landed catch," a University of the West Indies report said.

It also noted an overabundance of sargassum in Martinique which was blamed for the recent deaths of thousands of fish in the French Caribbean island.

In other islands such as St Martin, its once turquoise and pristine waters have become infiltrated by large volumes of the weed which has forced the country once popular with tourist to scale back several of its water activities leading to a suspension of its ferry service along with the cancelling of its kayaking, paddle boarding and snorkelling tours.

Sargassum presents an issue for destinations because its unpleasant smell and presence can discourage beach-going tourists. On Union Island, which is part of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the seaweed invasion has also forced some resorts to close for up to five months in the past. In addition to the clientèle decrease, some damage has also been recorded among electronic appliances of coastal hotels (air-conditioning units, TVs, computer) due to the prolonged exposure to high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide — a toxic product of the decomposing seaweed.

Even as some larger nations have moved to pump significant funds into reducing the presence of the algae on its beaches, through procedures utilising heavy machinery, environmentalist have warned against this citing possible erosion and the destruction of turtle eggs among its outcomes.

While scientists have said that more research is needed to determine why sargassum levels in the region are so high, the United Nations' Caribbean Environment Program has linked it to a possible rise in water temperatures as a result of climate change, and nitrogen-laden fertiliser and sewage that nourish the algae.

Touting its use as material that can be used for the production of fertiliser, food, biofuel and construction inputs, Caribbean islands are not as agile in moving the vast amounts needed for these purposes largely stemming from its position of limited resources and small economies.

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