A 5,000-Mile-Wide “Blob” of Seaweed Threatens Caribbean Communities and Tourism
What One Small Caribbean Company is Doing to Thwart the Threat
Masses of tangled brown seaweed that typically spend most of the year floating in the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean are headed for the shores of Florida and other coastlines throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The seaweed mass that is often referred to as a “blob” is known as the great Atlantic Sargassum belt. Collectively weighing 13 million tons and stretching over 5,000 miles – the belt is large enough to be seen from space.
Sargassum is a large, leafy brown seaweed that’s abundant in the ocean. Its ability to float comes from the small berrylike pods sprouting from the plant. The pods are gas-filled structures, mostly containing oxygen. The Sargassum is a hospitable shelter for fish, sea turtles, and marine birds, alike. As this blob encroaches on the shores of the Atlantic coast, it could portend trouble for several coastal communities.
Where Are the Masses of Seaweed Headed?
Recent satellite images show patches just south of islands in the northern Caribbean and offshore of the eastern Yucatán Peninsula. It’s reached the Gulf of Mexico. And experts anticipate that the seaweed belt will arrive at the Florida coastline, peaking in the summer months.
Why is This a Problem?
Small quantities washing up on land is typically not a problem – but bigger patches, some as many as six feet high, can inundate beaches. As the sargassum decomposes on shore it releases ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, the rotten-egg stench is an assault on more than our noses. According to the Journal of Travel Medicine, the gases released can cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, vertigo, headache, and skin rashes.
The human health threats associated with the seaweed have unintended economic consequences for the beach communities whose livelihoods bank on tourism dollars. Tourists will avoid beaches that are clogged with sargassum during peak summer season – as unsightly piles can block access to the water and create unpleasant swimming conditions. Last year’s record-setting bloom caused serious problems for local communities. The U.S. Virgin Islands declared a state of emergency after high concentrations of sargassum in St. Croix clogged a desalination plant – a primary source of water for the island.
For now, researchers and communities are looking into ways to thwart the impact of sargassum on beaches all together.
Repurposing the Sargassum
Once Sargassum lands on the shores, it needs to be removed. Local municipalities will often haul the seaweed away to a landfill or burn it. “When Sargassum is piled high – and keeps coming, disposal becomes a challenge,” says Johanan Dujon Founder of Algas Organics. The annual cleanup costs to collect, transport sargassum seaweed to a landfill has been estimated and $120 million in the Caribbean for 2018 and $50M for Miami in 2019.
“Cleanup costs can be burdensome for small Caribbean communities,” says Dujon. “I’ve witnessed firsthand the crippling effect of sargassum on my home island of St. Lucia.” Rather than dispose of the toxic seaweed, Dujon identified an opportunity that would clear the seaweed littered on his local beaches, while repurposing it in a sustainable way.
Johanan Dujon founded Algas Organics which manufacturers of a seaweed-based fertilizer. Dujon developed a propriety farming product that increases the crop performance and farm profitability. Algas Organics is providing solutions for the sargassum excess while supplying farmers with the highest quality crop nutrition and crop protection products.
To date, Algas Organics has helped to rid Saint Lucia’s beaches of approximately 300 tons of Sargassum through a zero-waste manufacturing process. “Algas Organics is solving for a natural environment problem in an innovative way,” says Robert Verdun, a partner of Solyco Capital. Solyco Capital has partnered with Algas Organics.