Editorial: The Sargassum seaweed saga

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If you love the sea, or at least a good beach lime, you have probably adopted more colourful language since the invasion of the Sargassum seaweed to our shores and nearby waters. For years, our beaches have been washed by the “golden tide.” The quantum of seaweed comes in waves (pun intended) and ever so often, those who are most affected hang their hopes that the lessened intensity is the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ that they so badly want. Judging from all that we have seen, the light is very dim and what needs to be developed is a national response plan to deal with the seaweed on a long-term basis.
The announcement that the government is planning to meet with the hoteliers to see what assistance they can provide is a good first step, but we believe that we are still living in a reactive state of mind. The seaweed issue is everyone’s business, and the government needs to take the lead in finding solutions. We have heard many people who have pushed back on our assertion and countered that the seaweed does not impact their lives, but that is a myopic view of the situation. Antigua and Barbuda is a tourism-based economy, so where there are impacts on our tourism product, there are impacts on our economy. Everyone in this country relies on tourism, either directly or indirectly so, if you are someone one who thinks that seaweed is not your concern, it is time that you make it your concern.
As a first step toward evaluating the impacts and options related to the seaweed, we can look to the 2016 report entitled “Sargassum Management Brief,” which was produced in collaboration with the University of the West Indies (UWI). It’s subtitle gives you a good idea of the contents:  “Golden Tides: Management Best Practices for Influxes of Sargassum in the Caribbean with a focus on clean-up”. We say that this is a good place to start because the document gives the reader a much better understanding of where the seaweed comes from and what are the options for managing it once it arrives on our shores. There is no substitute for knowledge when combating a problem like this.
There is also no use re-inventing the wheel and spending time and money doing what has already been done, so let’s use the report as a jump-off point for our national plan. Its purpose is, after all, “to enable government officials, coastal managers, beach caretakers and coastal residents to get ahead of the “golden tides” by providing up-to-date information on the recent ‘sargassum influxes’ (arrival of unprecedented mass quantities of sargassum seaweed) in the Caribbean region; and, importantly, by offering guidance on how best to sustainably manage the seaweed, based on lessons learnt to date.”
One thing that we immediately saw as a positive in the report was the fact that the authors did not waste time in pointing out that public education was a key component in addressing the situation in a holistic manner.  On page three of the report, there is a section entitled “Develop a Communication Plan,” which states, “An important first step is to ensure coastal users and other stakeholders, including the general public, receive relevant and reliable information about sargassum and the periodic influxes in the region, as well as the on-going management efforts.” While this is obvious, it would appear that we may have already missed this step.
To the overly sensitive who will jump to the misguided conclusion that we are criticising anyone, we are not. This has been going on for years, but at the same time it is still new for our bit of paradise. We have all been praying that it will stop, but it is unlikely to do so in the near future. We all need to be educated and actively participate in the action plan to manage the seaweed for the betterment of all.
In the document’s first “Dos and Don’ts,” the authors make it clear, “Do: Communicate accurate, easy to understand, and interesting information on sargassum. Suggest tangible voluntary activities to usefully engage public participation. Inform stakeholders about relevant regulations. Share examples of adaptation measures. Involve the youth in environmental education about sargassum,“ and, “Don’t:  Leave the public in the dark or put out misinformation.” We can wholeheartedly get behind this first step because it is the foundation on which we can build a united approach to the seaweed invasion response. 
This is just the beginning, and, at this point, we can understand those who are unwilling to invest in any commercial processing of the seaweed due to the uncertainty of its supply. But even if the supply is uncertain, the investment in equipment to properly manage the seaweed is certain to pay dividends in terms of our tourism product and our noses. So, for the time being, let’s say that the seaweed is here to stay, and let’s all pull together to formulate a long-term plan to manage it.
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