SINT MAARTEN/CARIBBEAN - Once again, Government’s across the Caribbean are having to confront a Sargassum seaweed invasion, the ‘new normal’ for the region. The Caribbean has been heavily impacted this year with Sargassum seaweed. The invasion of the weed is unprecedented in the region before 2011.
Hotel properties along the beach especially on the windward side of Caribbean nations have been inundated with seaweed causing serious consequences for hotel operations such as bars and restaurants along the beach.
Sargassum seaweed encroached beaches, are also left un-pristine as well as the surrounding crystal clear blue waters. This results in challenges for water sports and other related activities such as shore-side snorkeling thereby negatively impacting the beach/water experiences which are an integral part of the visitor’s destination experience.
The St. Maarten Nature Foundation has been out in front informing the Sint Maarten community about this natural event. “Sargassum is a genus of brown (class Phaeophyceae) seaweed which is distributed throughout the temperate and tropical oceans of the world.
“Most of the Sargassum seaweed lies concentrated in the Sargassum Sea, a region in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean surrounded by ocean currents. It is bounded on the west by the Gulf Stream; on the north, by the North Atlantic Current; on the east, by the Canary Current; and on the south, by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current.
“Sargassum first plagued the Caribbean and Sint Maarten in 2011 and 2012, with the Foundation having to warn swimmers to avoid swimming in Guana Bay in August and September due to the large amount of Sargassum weed and many beach front residences and hotels having to continuously clean washed up Sargassum,” according to the Nature Foundation.
Scientists have said that Sargassum seaweed besides being a nuisance, also provides nutrients and supports the ecosystem by feeding fish and turtles and other creatures of the sea. Decomposing seaweed along the coasts also releases nutrients for coastal sea organisms and provides protection for beaches preventing erosion.
The Sargassum Sea has been described as a ‘unique marine ecosystem,’ that covers an area of two million square miles in the North Atlantic Ocean east of Bermuda; is home to more than 100 species of fish and over 140 species of invertebrates e.g. Crabs, shrimps etc.
According to the Sargasso Sea Commission, “It is a haven of biodiversity and there is growing recognition of the crucial role it plays in the wider North Atlantic ecosystem as habitat, foraging and spawning grounds and as a migratory corridor. Endangered European and American eels migrate to the Sargasso to breed. Wahoo, tuna and other pelagic fish forage in and migrate through the Sea, as do a number of whale species, notably sperm whales and humpbacks.”
Ocean scientists are trying to understand the rise of the seaweed and are working with two theories. Firstly, that there is a change in ocean circulation shifting it more towards the Caribbean, is one line of thinking; and secondly, that there is a biological cycle in the ocean that has boosted and enhanced Sargassum Seaweed production.
What does this mean for country and destination Sint Maarten as well as other Caribbean islands? Sargassum seaweed negatively effects tourism.
An all-inclusive resort on the island of Antigua was forced to temporarily close from July 15 for a two and half-month period after losing the battle against the seaweed. Hotel guests that were staying at the resort had to be transferred to other properties.
The influx of decaying seaweed on our pristine beaches results in the removal of the smelly seaweed by heavy loaders and trucks. The removal of seaweed must be done in an organized and coordinated manner with relevant government and non-governmental bodies to avoid erosion of the national beaches which in itself could create additional challenges; as well as avoiding damage to sea turtle nesting areas.
The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) during its 5th meeting of the Council of Ministers of Environmental Sustainability, in Montserrat, will be making a request to the Martinique delegation for assistance in identifying suitable equipment to deal with the removal of the weed.
Governments have a plan in place to deal with natural disasters. This entails an organizational structure supported by various public and private sector entities which is coordinated by the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Sint Maarten is now confronted with whether the Sargassum seaweed challenge should fall under the responsibility of its disaster management system.
Regional Governments have been advised to have management plans in place to react quickly. Some Governments have established work groups to provide guidelines to the tourism industry on how to handle the situation and clean-ups.
Impacts in the region have led to closed beaches and cancelled vacations which impacts tourism-based economies. One island declared the issue as a ‘natural disaster.’
Significant resources will have to be allocated in the annual budgetary cycle in order to deal with the removal of Sargassum seaweed from our natural resource, our beaches. Our beaches are part and parcel of our economy. Stay-over tourists and cruise passengers come to enjoy our beaches whether for a week or a one-day stop-over in the case of cruise passengers.
The removal of Sargassum seaweed is not only a responsibility of the public sector. The private sector has a role to play as well. Hotel properties located along the coastline benefit from the country’s natural resource, our beaches. These properties should also make room within their own budgets to take annual mitigating measures should they be confronted with the challenge.
Antigua’s Minister of Health, Wellness and the Environment Molwyn Joseph, cautioned that Caribbean countries going forward, have to take, “…the necessary measures need to be put in place, for the Sargassum season, like one would make arrangements for the hurricane season.
“We have made the assumption that this is going to be an annual thing, and the same way we prepare for hurricanes we have to prepare for sargassum because there is such a thing as sargassum season,” the minister reportedly said.
Sint Maarten/St. Martin will also have to plan accordingly by developing an annual Sargassum Seaweed Removal Plan as part of the ‘new normal.’
By Roddy Heyliger