BUMPER CROP Seaweed a growing concern in tourism dependent Caribbean

Posted on 08/18/2015

With the start of the region's high tourism season around the corner, some officials are calling for an emergency meeting of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, worried that the worsening influx of sargassum seaweed could become a chronic dilemma for the globe's most tourism-dependent region.  The question then for travel professionals selling trips to affected regions is ‘how much, if anything, do you disclose to potential travellers?”
It should be a no-brainer.  You can’t hide sargassum if your resort’s beach is getting a heavy hit. There’s lots of it and it smells. If travellers don’t know going in, they sure as hell will know it when they get there, and the ensuing problems both at the destination and on their return will only make the situation worse.

Regional effort needed

“This has been the worst year we've seen so far. We really need to have a regional effort on this because this unsightly seaweed could end up affecting the image of the Caribbean,” said Christopher James, chairman of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association.

He’s right, but the situation – in varying degrees of severity - exists now, and travellers expecting to find the typically pristine beaches of the Caribbean and Mexico are in some places not finding them.

It’s not a problem everywhere

It is obviously not a problem everywhere, it’s not even a problem at different beaches in the same destination, but where there is sargassum seaweed – there can be a lot of it.

Will it have dissipated by high season?  Or increased?  Nobody seems to know but fingers are almost certainly crossed.  

The cause…maybe

There are various ideas about what is causing the seaweed boom that scientists say started in 2011, including warming ocean temperatures and changes in the ocean currents due to climate change. Some researchers believe it is primarily due to increased land-based nutrients and pollutants washing into the water, including nitrogen-heavy fertilizers and sewage waste that fuel the blooms.

Brian Lapointe, a sargassum expert at Florida Atlantic University, says that while the sargassum washing up in normal amounts has long been good for the Caribbean, severe influxes like those seen lately are “harmful algal blooms” because they can cause fish kills, beach fouling, tourism losses and even coastal dead zones.

“Considering that these events have been happening since 2011, this could be the 'new normal.' Time will tell,” Lapointe said by email.

On the move

The mats of drifting sargassum covered with berry-like sacs have become so numerous in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean they are even drifting as far away as to West Africa, where they've been piling up fast in Sierra Leone and Ghana.

What to do? What to do?

The simple truth is, tourists really don’t care where it is coming from, and what is causing it, what they want to know is how bad it is, and if and how it will impact their vacation and what they can to avoid it!

So, no point sticking our collective heads in the sand, the destinations being affected are working hard to clear beaches, it’s a tough and seemingly endless job, but they are trying.  

This is not in any way a criticism of tour operators or travel agents, we are simply asking the question – what- if anything can be done to ameliorate the situation and to let passengers be aware going in?  And surely that has to be better than allowing them to go in without knowing (if that is even possible).

Hotel and/or date/destination changes obviously have all manner of logistical and financial issues – refunds – well I was a supplier long enough to know the issues there.  And at the end of the day the problem is still there.  So what’s next.  

Working on the problem

Caribbean countries, as noted earlier, are looking at combined regional efforts and Mexican authorities recently said they will spend about $9.1 million and hire 4,600 temporary workers to clean up seaweed mounds accumulating along that country's Caribbean coast. Part of the money will be used to test whether the sargassum can be collected at sea before it reaches shore.

Sargassum, which gets its name from the Portuguese word for grape, is a floating brownish algae that generally blooms in the Sargasso Sea, a roughly 2 million-square-mile (about 5 million-square-kilometre) body of warm water in the North Atlantic that is a major habitat and nursery for numerous marine species. Like coral reefs, the algae mats are critical habitats and mahi-mahi, tuna, billfish, eels, shrimp, crabs and sea turtles all use the algae to spawn, feed or hide from predators.

But some scientists believe the sargassum besieging a growing number of beaches may actually be due to blooms in the Atlantic's equatorial region, perhaps because of a high flow of nutrients from South America's Amazon and Orinoco Rivers mixing with warmer ocean temperatures.

A regional/seasonal event?

“We think this is an ongoing equatorial regional event and our research has found no direct connection with the Sargasso Sea,” said Jim Franks, senior research scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

Whatever the reason, the massive sargassum flow is becoming a major challenge for tourism-dependent countries.

In large doses, the algae harms coastal environments, even causing the deaths of endangered sea turtle hatchlings after they wriggle out of the sand where their eggs were buried. Cleanup efforts by work crews may also worsen beach erosion.

“We have heard reports of recently hatched sea turtles getting caught in the seaweed. If removal of seaweed involves large machinery that will also obviously cause impacts to the beaches and the ecosystems there,” said Faith Bulger, program officer at the Washington-based Sargasso Sea Commission.

Some tourists in hard-hit areas are trying to prevent their summer vacations from being ruined by the stinking algae, and take a relaxed attitude.

During a visit to Cancun, German tourist Oliver Pahlke said though he could smell the seaweed, “I'm enjoying the sun.”

And on the south coast of Barbados, Canadian vacationer Anne Alma said reports of the rotting seaweed mounds she'd heard from friends did not dissuade her from visiting the Eastern Caribbean island.

"I just wonder where the seaweed is going to go," she said watching more of mats drift to shore even after crews had already trucked away big piles to use as mulch and fertilizers.

So, perhaps this is a tempest in a teacup.  Will Canadians (and others) learn to simply ignore the mounds of seaweed, grow used to the scent of sargassum and simply relish the warmth and sunshine for not being cold, snow and ice?

Stay tuned.