Expert predicts moderate to major sargassum season

Blankets of the pungent seaweed have caused misery for residents in the past (Observer file photo)
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By Carlena Knight

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Residents are being told to expect a moderate to major season for invasive sargassum seaweed.

Marine ecologist with the National Parks Authority Ruleo Camacho made the announcement in his latest monthly update on the unsightly algae which is carried by currents and often washes up on local beaches.

Despite his predictions, the exact impact on Antigua and Barbuda, Camacho explained, will depend on this summer’s weather patterns. 

“It’s looking like it’s going to be a tough summer but currently the good thing is, the brunt of the sargassum is actually to the south,” he told yesterday’s Observer AM show.

“I always feel a little bad when I have to say this but the southern Caribbean islands is going to have a beating right now … unless current shifts and starts pushing things north then we should be relatively okay but, again, because these stuff are driven by weather patterns and not by anything like they move or swim in a particular direction, it’s very much subject to change and that’s always been one of the hardest parts.

“But based on what we are seeing this month in comparison to other months … it looks like we are going to have something comparable to last year,” Camacho explained.

Several Caribbean countries including Antigua and Barbuda have been dealing with the sargassum problem, which poses both economic and ecological challenges, for more than a decade.

In 2018 Antigua and Barbuda recorded its worst year to date resulting in several hotels being forced to close due to piles of the stinking seaweed amassing on beaches. Conditions have however improved in the last couple of years, with a significant decrease in 2021.

Camacho said concerns are currently heightened due to the potential impact on marine life, as large blankets of the algae not only trap sea creatures but can also affect turtles’ nests.

“We are also starting to get into turtle nesting season. Sargassum quantities on the beach can have severe effects on turtles, not only trapping them but there’s been some pictures in past years where turtles get caught.

“It can affect the ratio of males to females within the nest because it changes the internal sand temperature on the beach and the sex ratio of the turtle eggs,” Camacho explained.

“Also, if you have a large amount of sargassum coming over shallow water and it’s not getting enough flow or ocean current, it actually sucks oxygen out of the water and that can cause fish kills.

“So, I remember, I think a year or two ago up in Fitches Creek, people were reporting that there were dead eels and even last year, up in St James, I had to go up and do a report where we were seeing a lot of the creatures that lived within the sand columns were dying,” he said.

Such deaths in Antigua and Barbuda, Camacho said, however, are still fewer than the numbers seen in other Caribbean territories.

Camacho also explained that the seaweed does have some positive effects on the marine eco-system.

He said when sargassum is floating on the water it acts as habitat for many species.

“Baby turtles use it to shelter to protect themselves from predators. Some fish like mahi and tuna, they all feed under it because the juvenile fish see it as shelter and you know how the food web goes – and I can tell you when sargassum first started and we were having these big clumps, fishermen at first were having a positive view from them,” Camacho said.

“The problem is that we’ve had so much sargassum now that, over the last couple of years, the fishermen are saying that they cannot even fish properly.

“But from a purely ecological level when it’s on the water, it’s actually a positive net impact – absorbing carbon, providing safety, providing shelter and some species would even lay their eggs on it. It’s very positive,” he added.

Sargassum is a relatively new phenomenon and scientists are still trying to pinpoint its cause but Camacho said a principle theory is that it is due to climate change.

Some countries have come up with creative ways to remove the seaweed banks that wash ashore.

Last year, the Gaston Browne-led administration confirmed that harvesting by an unnamed entrepreneur was being done to transport the seaweed to a plant in Finland and turn it “into a useful product”.

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