It’s World Oceans Day on Saturday, June 8th and it is time to acknowledge that its condition is very poor. We’ve all seen the dramatic pictures of the plastic being removed from the insides of marine birds, whales, and all kinds of fish. The same grim picture of plastic trash in the marine algae, specifically sargassum, covering many of the beaches, can be seen in many of the Caribbean waterfronts, from Florida in the north, to Mexico in the west, to Dominican Republic in the east to Barbados in the south. Even from the sky, lines upon lines of floating mats of the algae heading towards some unsuspecting shore, or traveling in a very small boat between islands along the Caribbean coast of Central America. It is sad to know the havoc they’re about to cause in the shoreline.
Tourism is at stake. The algae are creating a nuisance for tourists and locals who simply want to enjoy an unobstructed path to the beach or be able to walk or swim in the water without having to wade through a thick morass of algae. Most hotels must physically remove the material by hand or with mechanical rakes if they want to be able to offer a comfortable beach to their clients, a process that has to be done every day. Every day. The impact of the algae may have passed the point of simply being a nuisance, to have significative economic implications. Moody’s recently alerted Mexico of the need to do more to combat the problem as the images of beaches covered by the brown seaweed could negatively impact tourism and affect the revenues of the industry on its Caribbean coast. It’s unknown how much hoteliers, governments or local communities are spending on gathering and disposing of this biological material, but one thing is certain, everyone is searching for a solution.
In the search for a solution, there are a couple of things that would be useful to remember.
- We need to ensure that we are speaking about the same thing. I was on a mission to discuss matters related to island sustainability and the Blue Economy, and the topic of Sargassum arose as it was affecting the shoreline of the island. We went to inspect the areas where the algae was affecting the coast and there was a vast amount of Sargassum, but it was intermixed with two species of seagrass, turtle grass (Thalassia sp.), and manatee grass (Syringodium sp.); a filamentous green algae which was an indicator species of organic pollution – usually from high levels of nutrients contaminating the nearshore environment. The problem was it was labeled as seaweed without the distinction that there were differences in plant forms in the clump of material. There was a regional issue (the sargassum) that needed to be addressed in a different way to that of a localized issue (the filamentous green algae) and to that of a beneficial issue (Thalassia and the Syringodium), which needed to maintained. With a common understanding of these issues, the solutions that we devise will have a greater potential for success.
- Let’s treat the Sargassum as a productive material instead of a waste product. Applying the circular economy principle of eliminating waste, the vast quantities of algal material could become inputs into new materials and new processes. Fortunately, this is already happening as it is being used as a fertilizer, an energy source and there are investigations of it being transformed to be a bioplastic. This year, the London marathon featured the use of water bottles/pouches made of edible biodegradable seaweed and work has started in the Caribbean on using Sargassum as the base material for the polymer membranes in bottles.
- A high degree of innovation will be needed to help resolve this issue. New innovative approaches will be required to address the situation, whether it is to intercept the floating mats at sea using new collection devices or developing new materials or to be used in new processes.
So, for Oceans Day, we will be thinking about the oceans and what they bring to us and how we can use it and, of course, about possible solutions to treat the sargassum problem in our Caribbean Islands.