Record amount of seaweed is choking shores in Caribbean

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San Juan, Puerto Rico — Nearly record amounts of seaweed are strangling Caribbean coasts from Puerto Rico to Barbados, killing fish and other wildlife, affecting tourism and releasing smelly, harmful gases.

More than 24 million tons of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic in June, breaking the all-time record set in 2018, according to the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab. And unusually large amounts of brown algae have drifted into the Caribbean Sea.

Recently a ragged carpet of vegetation around an uninhabited island near Saint Martin, France’s Caribbean region popular with tourists, forced authorities to suspend ferry service and cancel kayaking, paddleboarding and snorkeling tours. The normally translucent turquoise waters around Pinel Island turned a prickly yellow-brown mud.

Caribbean Paddling owner Oswen Corbell said he was to close his St. Martin business on July 22 and does not expect to reopen until the end of October. He estimated that he lost at least $10,000.

“Maybe I should give up. … Sometimes I feel like I should go to the mountains and flock to the sheep, but that’s what I know to do,” he said. “What’s next? We had Hurricane Irma, we had COVID, we had Sargasm, and now I’m so afraid of global warming.”

Scientists say more research is needed to determine why Sargassum levels are so high in the region, but the United Nations’ Caribbean Environment Program said possible factors include increased water temperatures as a result of climate change. , and nitrogen-rich fertilizers and sewage. Nourish algae.

“This year has been the worst year on record,” said Lisa Krymsky, a researcher at the University of Florida Sea Grant, a program aimed at protecting the coast. “It’s absolutely disastrous for the region.”

She said the large scale of seaweeds has a serious environmental impact, with decomposing algae changing the water temperature and pH balance and causing degradation in seagrasses, coral and sponges.

“They are essentially being harassed,” Krymsky said.

The “golden tide” has also given a tough competition to humans.

Algae concentrations are so heavy in parts of the eastern Caribbean that the French island of Guadeloupe issued a health warning in late July. It warned some communities about the high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas released from giant rotting clumps of seaweed. Gas that smells like rotten eggs can affect people with breathing problems like asthma.

The Biden administration declared a federal emergency last month after the US Virgin Islands warned of unusually high amounts of sargassum clogging machinery at a desalination plant near St. struggling to.

In addition, the US Virgin Islands’ power generation station relies on ultra-pure water from a desalination plant to reduce emissions. Officials said such water loss would force the government to use a type of diesel fuel that is more expensive and in limited supply.

Chuanmin Hu, a professor of oceanography at the University of South Florida who helped prepare the seafloor report, said sargassum levels for the eastern Caribbean were nearly record highs this year, higher than those reported in July 2018. The latter was in second place. Levels are at their third highest in the northern Caribbean, he said.

Experts first noted Sargassum in large quantities in the Caribbean Sea in 2011, and since then this problem occurs practically every year.

“We don’t know if this is a new normal,” Krymsky lamented.

Sargassum in small amounts helps purify water and absorb carbon dioxide and is an important part of the habitat of fish, turtles, shrimp, crabs and other organisms. It is also used in fertilizers, food, biofuels, building materials and medicinal products.

But it is bad for tourism and the environment when too much is stored just offshore or on beaches.

“It’s definitely the worst time we’ve ever seen,” said Melody Rouvere, general manager of a tour company in the Dutch Caribbean region Saint Maarten, which shares an island with Saint Martin. “It ruined my personal beach plans.”

On Union Island, which is part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, seaweed invasions have forced some resorts to close for five months in recent years.

The population of Sargassum has also strangled the Caribbean fishing industry. It damages boat engines and fishing gear, prevents fishermen from accessing their vessels and fishing grounds, and leads to a decline in the number of fish caught. Barbados, where beaches are piled with reddish-brown seaweed, has been hit particularly hard.

Sargassum overdose was blamed for the recent deaths of thousands of fish in the French Caribbean island of Martinique. It also has activists concerned about the plight of the endangered turtles. Some are dying at sea, becoming entangled in seaweed or unable to lay their eggs because of the algae mat on top of the sand.

In the Cayman Islands, officials began a testing program in which crews pulled more than 2,880 square feet (268 square meters) of seaweed out of the water. But on Tuesday, the government announced the suspension of the project, saying the seaweed has decomposed so much that it rendered pumping useless.

Some island nations use heavy machinery to remove seaweed from the coast, but scientists warn that erosion causes and could destroy endangered turtle nests.

Many Caribbean islands are struggling financially and do not have the means to clear large amounts of seaweed.

Governor Albert Bryan of the US Virgin Islands said he asked President Joe Biden to declare a federal emergency not only for St. Croix, but the entire three-island region, but it did not happen. Brian said he is now trying to find local funds to clean up the beaches, “but a lot of things need money right now.”

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