Belize Rising Above Sargassum Swamp
Updated: Aug 13
“This year has been the worst on record. . . . We don’t know if this is the new normal. This has been devastating for over a decade.”
A record amount of sargassum is swamping Caribbean coasts as tons of the brown seaweed kill sea life, strangle the tourism industry, and ferment, decompose and release a rotten-egg odor in its wake.
However, national and local governments, tourism groups and developments, and residents have accepted the challenge of finding creative ways to confront and prevent the onslaught of sargassum seaweed. Attempts to use the brown algae as fertilizer, food, construction material and medical products continue in the region, where the algae first swamped the shores by as much as three feet in the spring and summer of 2011, reported The Associated Press (August 3).
In a press conference before attending the United Nations Ocean Conference, Belizean Prime Minister John Briceno mentioned the country’s research into turning sargassum into energy and the possibility of sharing the results with participants at the June summit in Lisbon.
The Belize Government also planned a testing phase of a project filtering out the sargassum before it reaches the beaches, Minister of the Blue Economy, Andre Perez, told News 5 (June 2).
More than 24 million tons of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic Ocean in June as compared with 18.8 million tons in May, according to a monthly report published by the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab that noted “a new historical record”.
In July, the amount of sargassum was sustained, neither increasing nor decreasing, optical oceanography professor, Chuanmin Hu, told The Associated Press.
“I was scared,” Hu recalled when he recorded the historic number for June, 20 percent more than the previous record in May 2018.
Lisa Krimsky, a faculty member with Florida Sea Grant and a University of Florida water resources agent: “This year has been the worst on record. . . . We don’t know if this is the new normal. This has been devastating for over a decade.”
Close-up of sargassum, which shows the air bladders that help keep it afloat
Origin of Sargassum
The Sargasso Sea, unique as it has no land boundaries, is formed by four water currents with Bermuda at the western fringe and in the mysterious Bermuda Triangle. Muhammed al-Idrisi (born at Ceuta, present-day Spain, in 1100, and died there in 1165), created the Tabula Rogeriana, one of the most advanced medieval world maps. He wrote about “sticky and stinking waters” that many believe was the Sargasso Sea.
The sea is named for the preponderance of the seaweed called sargaço by Portuguese sailors. Sargassum holds an “amazing amount and diversity of life,” including filefish, triggerfish, jacks, loggerhead turtles, Sargasso shrimp and crabs, as well as American and European eels that return there to lay eggs and die, according to Brian E. Lapointe, Ph.D. in the lecture, Secrets of the Sargasso Sea (2011), at Florida Atlantic University.
While the Sargasso Sea is a source of sargassum, variations in the sargassum types composing these inundations have led researchers to believe that the sea is not the point of origin.
Some scientists believe that the main nursery is located off the West African coast, according to The Great Sargassum Disaster of 2018, by ESSA Technologies, an international environmental consulting firm based in Ottawa, Canada.
Besides the Stench and Appearance, What's the Problem
In moderation, sargassum helps to purify water and absorb carbon dioxide. However, large masses of it severely damage the environment, said Krimsky. Decaying algae alter the water temperature and the pH acidity-alkaline balance, which leads to declines in seagrass, coral reef and sponge populations.
“They’re essentially being smothered out,” Krimsky told The Associated Press.
According to ESSA, which was founded in 1979: “The accumulating and beached algal mats have had a number of negative impacts on marine animals. Foraging adult turtles and marine mammals can become entangled and trapped in the mats.”
Masses of sargassum also have strangled the Caribbean’s fishing industry, reported The Associated Press. It damages boat engines and fishing gear, prevents fishermen from reaching their boats and fishing areas, and it leads to a drop in the number of caught fish. An overabundance of sargassum was blamed for the deaths of thousands of fish in Martinique.
Speculations about triggers for the mass blooms are varied, including nitrogen-rich fertilizers in agricultural runoff, sewage waste, a rise in water temperature due to climate change, and dust blowing west from Africa’s Sahara Desert, reported EuroNews (July 5).
According to ESSA Technologies, very high nutrient loads flushed out to sea from agriculture and poor land use through much of the Amazon Basin are among the triggers put forward for these mass blooms. A fertilizer effect due to increased iron and phosphate from Saharan dust over the mid-Atlantic also has been suggested as a possible cause. In 2018, thick atmospheric plumes of dust from the Sahara and spreading right across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, as well as heavier than normal haziness and respiratory illness were reported in the region.
The same pattern played out in 2015, a year also associated with a mass-bloom event. Climate change and variability also may play a role. Higher water temperatures and increased flushing of terrestrial nutrients due to heavier rainfall events are among the climate change effects linked to mass sargassum production.
Studies have attributed the transport of sargassum mega blooms fertilized off the coast of Brazil to an Atlantic Equatorial Counter Current strengthened by warm sea-surface temperatures during El Nino events. Another climate-driven trigger could be rougher winter seas, which fragment the plants into many pieces, each of which produces a new plant by division and growth.
However, the United Nations Caribbean Environment Program said that more research is needed to determine why sargassum levels in the region are reaching new highs, reported The Associated Press (August 3).
Sargassum lines in the Sargasso Sea
Before It Reaches Shore
According to News 5, Belizean representatives of the ministries of Climate Change, Tourism and the Blue Economy visited Playa del Carmen in neighboring Mexico and its project of collecting sargassum with a fleet of pontoon boats before it reaches shore. Near the shore, the floating plants double in 20 days. Out at sea, it takes 100 days, according to Brian E. Lapointe, Ph.D.
Andre Perez, Minister of the Blue Economy, told News 5 (June 2):
“What they do is capture the sargassum; they don’t want it to come to shore because whenever the sargassum comes to the shore, that’s when it ferments, and you get that rotten egg smell of sulfur. . . The entire town (of San Pedro) these days, you can smell it.
“We quickly realized that we may be at an advantage because of the reef. (Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest coral reef in the world, second to that of Australia.) Outside the reef, the sargassum is coming to our shore but, eventually, there are cuts in the reef, and these cuts make the sargassum funnel through, and there is this long line of sargassum. So, we believe that we can capture it there before it comes to shore. Whatever comes to shore then is something that can easily be handled by the municipality or the resorts.”
If successful, the process could be adopted across tourist designations, reported News 5.
Actions in Belize
Belize has been conducting projects and assisting properties that have been affected by the phenomenon, according to the Belize Tourism Board, including:
1. A tax relief to severely affected properties;
2. Duty exemption for imported clean-up machinery;
3. $1.5 million through the Belize Tourist Board to support municipalities with beach clean-ups;
4. The formation of a Sargassum Task Force (STF) comprising the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), the Fisheries Department, Ministry of Tourism, the Belize Tourism Board, Coastal Zone Management Authority, Ministry of Health, the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA), the Belize Hotel Association (BHA), stakeholders (businesses, organizations, residents and tourists), and representatives of the village councils of San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Hopkins and Placencia.
5. Municipal relief support for the three pillars of fighting sargassum: disposal sites, collection and disposal, and containment;
6. Public awareness campaigns on social media for tourists, businesses, organizations and people to inform them of actions being taken and best practices for disposing of sargassum;
7. Forecasting the development of a system to help predict the influx. The National Meteorological Service of Belize issues the Sargassum Forecast along with the weather forecasts.
The Belize Tourism Board reported that it is itself:
1. Supporting the forecasting system, making Belize one of the first countries in the region with the capability of forecasting sargassum influxes. The system continues to be improved for accuracy with support from regional satellite models, such as the Sargassum Watch System (SaWS), a European model and a mechanism under development with the local airline, Maya Island Air;
2. Working with properties on containment methods. On the northern side of Ambergris Caye, where there is a break in the reef, there is an influx of sargassum that crosses the barrier. The experimental installation of booms is a potential way to control the volume. ( Booms are containment barriers that are designed to deflect the algae and help funnel it away from the shores. Einer Gomez, manager of Ramon's Village Resort, told News 5 (June 2) that booms have been used there successfully, although "when it's windy, it goes past the boom, and we still have to clean it up.")
3. Public awareness campaigns informing businesses, organizations, residents, tourists and municipalities through press releases, social media and other resources on the best way of handling the sudden increase of sargassum.
Cavendish Atwell air-dries and grates the sargassum before bagging and selling it as fertilizer.
In Barbados, Cavendish Atwell air-dries and grates the sargassum before bagging and selling it as fertilizer, according to the Barbados Government Information Services.
"In retirement, you want to do something," said the 82-year-old entrepreneur, who has run the business for four years, and encouraged the government to use deserted factories for sargassum fertilizer production.
Also, in Barbados, Joshua Forte is convinced that sargassum can be turned into a valuable commodity as a highly effective organic compost, reported U.N. News (June 26).
In 2014, Forte started Red Diamond Compost, a biotech business that focuses on the research, development and commercialization of organic and biological soil treatment solutions made, primarily, from organic environmental hazards, such as sargassum.
"I started getting interested in organic compost in 2009, at a time when I became seriously ill and was in bed for 10 hours a day," said Foote, a national expert in environmental management. "I came across someone online who was talking about how nutrients and the right foods can improve your health. I tried changing my diet and, in a one-week period, I got a huge burst of energy that I had never had before.
"I started to dig in deeper. . . . I saw a contrast between the way that much of our food is produced in Barbados, with the focus on synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemicals. . . . In Barbados, toxic chemicals used in agriculture are killing the beneficial organisms, the life in the soil. A scientist at the university here even put out a report, which said that the microbial life here is completely decimated."
In the Virgin Islands, Deputy Chief Agricultural Officer Arona Fahie-Forbes encouraged farmers and gardeners to make use of the potassium- and nitrogen-rich sargassum as mulch as it retains water around plant roots; animal feed while it is fresh and still wet, and "free" fertilizer, according to the Government of the Virgin Islands GIS Report - Sargassum Seaweed (October 15, 2015).
Across the Caribbean, there are efforts to stimulate innovative and preventative approaches to the sargassum problem, according to ESSA Technologies (February 7, 2019):
"Antigua's Department of the Environment has initiated a procurement process to find viable alternatives to collect sargassum while at sea. Mexico is similarly searching for solutions that build on the local success of the 27-kilometer barrier solution implemented in 2018.
"The former French Environment Minister presented a €10 million plan in June 2018 to help solve the problem in Guadeloupe. The Inter-American Development Bank is exploring finding the economic evaluation of the impact of the 2018 sargassum mass bloom and supporting creative solutions through its Blue-Tech Challenge Programme, which began in September 2018.
"The consortium, CLS-NovaBlue Environment (NBE), was awarded a project with the European Space Agency in 2018 to implement an innovative Earth Observation service to provide a state-of-the-art early warning system for sargassum invasions."
The Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) initiated a regional fact-finding study in 2018 to document the record-breaking influx of Sargassum and the phenomenon's impact since 2011, reported CARICOM (Caribbean Community) (January 31, 2019).
The regional survey is financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which has coordinated official development assistance from Japan to CARICOM member states for more than two decades.
Clean-up could cost the Caribbean at least $120 million in 2018, reported CARICOM.
The Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism Ministerial Council adopted the Protocol for the Management of Extreme Accumulations of Sargassum on the Coasts of CRFM Member States in 2016.
The protocol has been guiding the drafting of national sargassum management protocols for Grenada, St. Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with support from the CC4FISH project, an initiative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
"Considerable creativity also has gone into finding beneficial uses for stranded sargassum," according to ESSA Technologies. "These include using it as raw material for chipping board, mulch, fertilizer and adobe houses.
"Seaweed has been studied as a source of chemical compounds for pharmaceuticals and personal care, fish feed, fertilizer and fuel."
Wageningen University-Research, which has done work in the Dutch Caribbean, turned sargassum into automotive fuel, but the biological product is not yet cost-effective, according to the Dutch university, which is known internationally for agriculture and forestry, (June 6, 2021).
According to ESSA:
"The exploration of beneficial uses for and sustainable clean-up options of stranded sargassum are commendable. However, these measures do not address the cause underlying the massive accumulations and widespread consequences facing Caribbean resource managers."