The invasive Sargassum seaweed continuously threatens Jamaica's tourism and economic viability each year as tonnes of the brown algae cover miles of beaches, forcing visitors to find other ways to soak up the island's beauty.
The United Nations Environment Programme says sargassum is a brown algae that originates in the Sargasso Sea of the Western Atlantic Ocean. It is said to grow up to several meters and can float in the open ocean.
There have been several studies and articles written on this invasive seaweed and its negative effects on Caribbean countries each year, and according to an Inter-American Development Bank article, sargassum has been washing up in enormous quantities on the Caribbean's pristine shores since 2011.
"Each year, over 22 million metric tonnes of the seaweed inundate the Caribbean, clogging coral reefs, affecting the ecosystem, impeding the fishing community, and becoming increasingly irksome to the tourism sector. The decaying weed produces a rotten-egg-smelling gas, which keeps beach lovers and tourists at bay. In 2018, sargassum clean-up reportedly cost the Caribbean approximately US$120 million," the article explained.
It is believed that this yearly spike in sargassum is a direct link to the growing impacts of climate change across the world, and news of a 5,000-mile seaweed belt heading towards the Caribbean, South Florida, and the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico earlier this month should alarm those in authority.
"Growing body of research shows that this threat to the livelihood of many and the environment is brought on by climate change and pollution. The ocean's absorption of most of the heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions, especially at the surface, is believed to have catalyzed a spike in sargassum blooms. The other culprit experts point to is pollution caused by the excessive use of fertilisers such as nitrogen and sewage overflow, which feed sargassum growth," the Inter-American Development Bank said on the issue.
Recognising the looming impacts of this 5,000-mile seaweed belt, Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) President Robin Russell called on the local authorities to begin making preparations for this clearly unavoidable invasion by the algae. Russell suggested that the Jamaican Government should implement disposal sites across the island to dump the algae.
"We'd love one in MoBay, one in Ocho Rios, and in-between that — somewhere you can dispose of it instead of carrying it up to the dump, somewhere you can put up all the sargassum," Russell appealed to the authorities.
An advisory from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) states that "the influx of the seaweed is believed to be related to increased accumulation in the Atlantic Ocean, where nutrients are available and temperatures are high. The seaweed consolidates into large mats and is transported by ocean currents towards the Caribbean, washing up on beaches throughout the region."
NEPA says that as it collects and decomposes on the seashore, there will be a smell, and it will also attract insects. It says that leaving the sargassum on the beaches is the "simplest and lowest cost solution".
As it breaks down, sargassum emits hydrogen sulfide gas, which has a pungent odour similar to that of rotten eggs. This gas can drive away beach visitors and have a negative impact on the tourism industry, which relies on clean and attractive ocean conditions. Sargassum can cause problems for navigation, as well as obstruct water intake at desalination plants. If it sinks to the ocean floor, it can also affect benthic ecosystems.
Just last year, in October, following a similar weather system, the algae could be found in many places along the coastline that required varying levels of cleaning. During that time, president of the Negril Chamber of Commerce Richard Wallace had to lead clean-up along Negril's pristine white sand beaches as the seaweed's pungent smell and unsightly nature made guests hesitant to enjoy the amenity. Many hoteliers also believe that the seaweed affected their tourism product and are currently bracing for the impact of this year's dose of the algae. The number of tourists visiting the beach can decrease, leading to lower revenues for local businesses that rely on tourism. Sargassum can also impact the quality of the sand on the beach, making it difficult for tourists to walk and lounge comfortably.
The removal of sargassum requires significant effort and resources, and this can strain the budgets of tourism stakeholders. Local authorities may need to hire additional workers to remove the seaweed from the beach, and this can divert funds from other projects that could benefit the community.
This is why climate justice is important for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Countries like Jamaica continue to face the devastating effects of climate change.
Sargassum is a natural occurrence, but its frequency and severity have increased in recent years due to climate change.
SIDS and coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These communities rely heavily on tourism and fisheries, and the presence of sargassum can have a significant impact on their economies and livelihoods. The seaweed can also affect fish stocks by creating anoxic conditions and decreasing the amount of available oxygen in the water. This can harm the fish populations and impact the local fishing industry, which can have a devastating effect on the livelihoods of the coastal communities.
Countries and communities that are most affected by climate change should not be burdened with the costs of mitigation and adaptation, as they have contributed the least to the problem. Many SIDS and coastal communities lack the resources and infrastructure to address the impacts of climate change and the associated challenges posed by sargassum.
It is essential that solutions to address the impact of sargassum on these communities take into account the principles of climate justice, and that efforts are made to provide support and resources to those who are most affected by its impacts.
— This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.