Rethinking sargassum: Gov’t hopes to transform the stinking seaweed into fertiliser

Piles of sargassum as seen at Mamora Bay in June (Photo courtesy Ruleo Camacho)
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By Gemma Handy

Could one of the biggest blights facing Antigua’s beaches become a boon?

That’s the hope of the government which yesterday revealed plans to harvest unsightly sargassum seaweed piled up on several of the island’s most cherished beaches – and turn it into fertiliser.

The latest inundation of the brown algae which drifts north from waters off South America has seen it invade several beaches this month including Jabberwock, Shell Beach and world-renowned Half Moon Bay.

Not only is it an eyesore at a time when tourist dollars are needed more than ever, it can kill critically endangered wildlife while the putrid gases it emits as it rots threaten human health.

Householders unlucky enough to live downwind have long decried the stench and the seaweed’s corrosive effect on electronic appliances.

The impact on health from breathing in the hydrogen sulphide and ammonia given off may include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and headaches.

And yesterday, the message from Cabinet was clear: anyone who can avoid it, should do so.

Residential areas such as Fitches Creek are particularly affected due to the proximity of vast swathes of sargassum to homes fringing the sea.

“The foul smell carries with it some gases that are harmful and we encourage those that are in the way to get out of the way,” Chief of Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, Lionel Hurst, told a press briefing.

“The Ministry of Health has, in prior years, advised exactly that. If you are suffering from asthma or some other kind of disease of the lungs, it is in your best interests to find clean air elsewhere.”

Plans to transform the algae into fertiliser are still in their early stages. But the process has been done with some success in other parts of the region, including St Lucia and Mexico.

Minutes from Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting revealed that neighbouring Guadeloupe has agreed to help Antigua by lending massive machinery to remove the sargassum from beaches.

A five-acre site – at a location yet to be decided – will then be used to store it ahead of processing.

Sargassum can create high quality compost as it contains potentially useful nutrients that can boost crop growth. One of the main obstacles is removing the salt which will otherwise increase the soil’s alkalinity. In times of abundant rainfall, this can be done fairly simply by spreading the seaweed out thinly and allowing the rain to dilute it.

“The whole idea is to try to make it into a useful product,” Hurst continued. “When Antigua and Barbuda grew sugarcane, one of the byproducts of the sugarcane was biogas which was used to help fire up the furnaces at the sugar factory.

“There are those who are of the view that the sargassum can be turned into a very useful product for fertilisers as well as maybe firing up certain plants,” he added.

The seaweed first appeared in the region in 2011. Today, it is a regular summer feature on coastlines across the Caribbean, from the Bahamas to Trinidad.

It poses additional perils to the environment too. Under normal conditions, floating sargassum is a thriving ecosystem, providing habitat and food for many marine species. But when it grows too thick, dolphins and turtles cannot reach the water’s surface and can asphyxiate.

Large mats of the algae can also be a hazard to reefs, blocking sunlight that corals need to survive.

The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt was first detected by NASA observation satellites in 2011. It is now known to be the largest bloom of seaweed in the world, stretching for more than 5,500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the western coast of Africa.

Local marine ecologist Ruleo Camacho recently predicted, using satellite data, that the Eastern Caribbean would experience a deluge until September, “with increased amounts of beaching seen throughout the nation’s beaches”.

For many Caribbean countries which, like Antigua and Barbuda, rely on pristine shores to woo tourists – and whose economies are already reeling from the coronavirus – finding a viable solution cannot come soon enough.

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