KINGSTON, Jamaica, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An unwelcome visitor sailed onto Caribbean beaches this year: huge rafts of seaweed.
The seaweed, called sargassum, has swept into the region in part as a result of changing weather conditions, turning many once-postcard-perfect beaches a dull pond-scum brown as it decomposes and releases a rotten egg stench.
“It’s a dirty horrible brown lace that just washes ashore,” said Noorani Azeez, CEO of the Saint Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association. “The foul stench of the seaweed is really an inhibitor to going (to the beach) with your family.”
The phenomenon has repeated itself across the Caribbean, with hardly any islands immune. It has created havoc for the tourism-dependent economies and disrupted other industries such as fisheries as fishermen struggle to navigate seaweed-choked waters.
In the Dominican Republic, the largest power company was forced to scale down operations as 570 metric tons of the seaweed clogged its sea water cooling system.
Even local wildlife has been affected, with reports of juvenile sea turtles struggling to climb over small mountains of the stuff to get to the ocean after hatching.
But Caribbeans are finding ways to cope, and some entrepreneurs are even developing ways to turn what they initially thought of as a scourge into a business opportunity.
The seaweed is an ochre-colored floating algae with small air-filled bladders that keep it afloat. Although some sargassum washes up naturally on beaches in the region, researchers and other observers say that in 2011 the Caribbean began to see a huge influx of the weed washing up on the region’s beaches.
The trend has continued, with a spike in 2014 and again in 2015.
“We think this event is related to climate change in some respects,” said Jim Franks, a senior research scientist at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi in the United States.
Franks has been studying the phenomenon and believes that the sargassum influx may be caused by factors including warmer water and an increase in nutrients.
Instead of coming from the Sargasso Sea, an area near Bermuda where the seaweed normally occurs, Franks’ theory is that the influx may come from a bloom in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near the equator.
With Caribbean beaches inundated with the seaweed, the University of the West Indies has held several events on the problem, including a “Sargassum Hack” day as well as a symposium on how to deal with the seaweed at its Cave Hill campus in Barbados.
Participants suggested using the plant for everything from fertiliser to cosmetics.
On the French-speaking island of Guadeloupe, one business designed a boat dubbed the “Sargator” to collect the seaweed in the water before it washed onto beaches.
In Barbados, Mark Hill, who owns one of the island’s largest solar power companies, started a new business, BioGen, specifically for collecting and using the copious amounts of seaweed washing up on the island’s shores.
Rather than using costly and potentially environmentally damaging heavy machinery, such as tractors, to remove the seaweed from beaches, he has experimented with a horse-drawn rake.
Hill, who says he’s incorporated the seaweed into his diet, also has made prototypes of products ranging from fertiliser to particleboard.
And companies as far afield as Illinois, in the United States, have been getting in on the business as well. Elastec, a company that specialises in oil spill response, has made a seaweed barrier, the “Beach Bouncer,” after receiving calls from resorts in Antigua and the Dominican Republic plagued by the stuff.
The barrier, made of plastic, steel and a mesh under the surface of the water, has been installed at two beaches so far, with more on order.
HERE TO STAY?
The big question is, how long will the seaweed invasion last?
The Gulf Coast Reasearch Laboratory’s Franks said the jury is still out on whether the sargassum influx is a one-time event or ongoing, but his lab is working on some models that he hopes could predict future surges in sargassum into the Caribbean.
“If we can predict and at least give some sort of indication of what the future holds, then these island countries can begin to develop some response strategies based on science rather than just guesswork. We think that would be very helpful,” Franks said.
BioGen’s Hill is betting that there will be no shortage of seaweed for him to use as raw material.
Others are making similar bets. H. Barber & Sons, a U.S.-based company that sells the SurfRake, a machine that can be used for cleaning seaweed off beaches, said interest in its machines from the Caribbean is at least double this year as potential users decide the investment - about $50,000 for a machine - may be worth it.
“It doesn’t seem to be going away,” said Melissa Corcoran, the company’s sales manager for the Caribbean.