Sargassum: Abomination or Bonanza?

Twenty fifteen (2015) will be remembered in the Caribbean as the year when massive populations of seaweed invaded the islands like alien armies rising from the sea, scaring and sickening a lot of people.

From the Bahamas northwest to Tobago southeast, tonnes of sargassum algae created a regional crisis transforming miles of white pristine beaches into brown quagmires of stinking decomposing biomass.

In Caribbean culture any strange unexplained phenomena is interpreted by false prophets and religious quacks as doomsday damnation, an omen of terrible things to come.

The sargassum conundrum was sensationalised without scientific, cause-and-effect analysis although it is potentially a blessing in disguise, not a “curse”.

The seaweed invasion was an unprecedented environmental anomaly that had regional governments scrambling to deploy damage control to mitigate a catastrophe.

A CARICOM emergency declared cleanup operations for tourism-dependent economies at an estimated U$120 million. Factor in beach erosions, ecosystem “dead zones”, the negative impact on fishing and tourism industries and you begin to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.

Since 2011 extraordinary mass movements of ocean seaweeds were observed and overtime it reached a critical mass of unparallel proportions.

Sir Hillary Beckles of the University of the West Indies said it was “the greatest endemic threat to our tourism brand”. He called for the immediate establishment of institutions to deal with the phenomenon many saw as the “new normal” in Caribbean dispensation.

Others advocated a regional symposium of Environmental Ministries and Caribbean Tourist/Hotel Association (CHTA) in collaboration with the World Bank Climate Change Fund and United Nations AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) to brainstorm solutions for the sargassum insurgence.

When things happen man blames God but God blames man.  In the Bible, Genesis (1/28), God gave mankind power “to subdue the earth” for his needs.  But our bad management of earth’s resources has wreaked environmental degradation causing global warming, changing weather patterns, and runaway ocean currents.

The mass exodus of pelagic sargassum from its Atlantic natural habitat to Caribbean regions is increasing climate change at work.

Marine biologists studying the phenomenon also explained how land-based sewage effluences, nitrogen-loaded fertiliser pollutants, and other human wastages dumped in the sea attract the sargassum community.  It is a seabird sanctuary, feeding ground for hundreds of marine species, and when dramatic climate change interrupts the food chain, sanctuary becomes cemetery.

The collective Caribbean psyche seemed programmed for reactive rather than proactive to situational contingencies. In the face of clear and present danger we procrastinate until it hits us with multimillion-dollar impact.

After the fact there is a frenzy of activity picking up the pieces and resolving to build back better – but “the damage already done”.

Still, a disaster is a terrible thing to waste and the Sargasso saga teaches many lessons.  For one thing, cleanup operations are only temporary stop-gap measures, often an exercise in futility against advancing waves of seaweeds: it is tactical rather than strategic and economically unsustainable in the long run.

What is required, as Sir Beckles intimated, are permanent systems constructed to engage the potentiality of a recurring annual norm.

Luckily, many Caribbean-friendly countries like Japan, South Korea, China possess long histories in resourceful seaweed management that we can emulate. Rather than focusing desperate preventative measures against the influx, they use inventive entrepreneurial product and process innovations in their seaweed culture, making it the generic product base in industrial applications, food technology, cosmetology, and medicine.

Botanists identify the Caribbean seaweed as sargassum muticum with a heterogeneous genus of species inhabiting all oceans except Antarctica.  It provides phytochemical compounds and nutraceuticals with food constituents of essential vitamins, carbohydrates, protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and minerals like iodine, calcium, and potassium.

Sargassum seaweeds have been consumed for millenniums by coast-dwelling peoples world-wide.  However, the culinary assets of modern oriental cuisines have taken the seaweed food matrix to dimensions encompassing a whole repertoire of sushi dishes and herbal brews.

In the processing industry sargassum is a major food additive as condiment flavour enhancer, gelatin thickener, and natural preservative.  The alginate extract is an indispensible stabilizer for ice cream, mayonnaise, salad dressing, yogurt, beer and wines.

In pharmacology and medicine the real and potential healing powers of seaweed are significant especially in China and Japan.  The many ailments treated include respiratory and thyroid disorders, cirrhosis of the liver, herpes simplex, erectile dysfunction, arthritis, and even post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS).

Industrial and agricultural applications are works in progress. The seaweed biomass provides compost, organic fertiliser, animal feed, biofuel heating and energy, and dyes for textile fabrics.

In cosmetology, seaweed extracts as cosmetic and therapeutic agents are widespread global trends providing hydrotherapy body massages, face and hand creams, beauty soaps, toothpaste, compact powders.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates the global seaweed industry at US$6 billion annually.  In 2014 Grenada launched a Blue Economy Initiative for growing an ocean-based economy.  So let’s do it and reap the “harvest of the sea” from the sargassum bonanza.

Jay Bruno

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