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Sargassum seaweed on a beach on the East Coast of BarbadosThe New York Times has published an article about the masses of seaweed that have been washing up on Caribbean beaches:

Aa invasion of seaweed that is extraordinary in volume and geographic scope has been besieging the eastern Caribbean since June, sending resorts and government agencies from Anguilla in the north to Tobago in the south scrambling to rid beaches of the smelly, brown, bug-attracting algae before the impending high season.

In Antigua, the $600-a-night St. James’s Club & Villas was forced to close for the month of September while it removed 10,000 tons of seaweed from its beaches. The weed, a floating species of algae known as Sargassum that inhabits the Sargasso Sea, had completely filled the bay on which the hotel sits and created piles as high as five feet tall on the usually pristine shore. In St. Maarten, swimmers were warned away from some beaches because of fears that they could get tangled in the seaweed and drown. In Barbados, the government installed an oil-containment boom across the mouth of a river on its northeast shore to keep the weed at bay. In Tobago, where for several months workers have been carting the stuff off beaches regularly and trucking it to the dump, the government has been encouraging farmers to use it as fertilizer.

“This is completely unprecedented,” said David Freestone, executive director of the Sargasso Sea Alliance in Washington, which has been fielding reports of unusual quantities of the seaweed washing ashore in places as far-flung as Sierra Leone in West Africa. While small amounts of Sargassum are normally found in the Caribbean from May to September when regional currents and winds transport the floating algae to the islands, such large accumulations across so many regions, he said, has “never happened in living memory.”

Theories as to why range from shifts in ocean currents to climate change to the gulf oil spill. But at least for now, “it’s a mystery,” Mr. Freestone said.

There could be environmental fallout as well. Seaweed plays an important role in the Caribbean ecosystem, and such large quantities can have positive and negative effects. Sargassum can help bulk up eroding beaches, for example. But large deposits can also make it difficult for tiny sea turtle hatchlings to find their way to the ocean. “It’s an intrusion on tourism,” said [Jerald Ault, professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami]. “But the reality is it serves as fertilizer on beaches and it may turn out to be extremely positive for fishery resources,” because the seaweed becomes a refuge and a food source for young fish and other sea creatures.

The big unknown is what happens next year. “The question of whether it was an exception to the rule or representing some sort of regime shift in the way ocean currents are operating is a pretty major question,” said Jeff Ardron, director of the High Seas Program for the Marine Conservation Institute in Washington, who has been tracking the issue. A repeat, he said, could “strongly indicate that something serious is afoot.”

Visit the Times website (registration may be required) for the full article: Where’s the Beach? Under the Seaweed.

Much thanks to Jadira Veen of the St. Maarten Pride Foundation for alerting me to this article.

[Photo: via nationnews.com]

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One Response to “New York Times covers sargassum seaweed invasion of the Caribbean” Subscribe

  1. Celia October 13, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    Yes, quite a bit of it in Dominica

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