A record amount of seaweed is choking shores in the Caribbean

by | Aug 3, 2022 | Top Stories

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Seaweed covers the Atlantic shore in Frigate Bay, St. Kitts and Nevis, on Wednesday. A record amount of seaweed is smothering Caribbean coasts from Puerto Rico to Barbados.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP

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Ricardo Mazalan/AP

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A record amount of seaweed is smothering Caribbean coasts from Puerto Rico to Barbados as tons of brown algae kill wildlife, choke the tourism industry and release toxic gases. More than 24 million tons of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic in June, up from 18.8 million tons in May, according to a monthly report published by the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab that noted “a new historical record.” July saw no decrease of algae in the Caribbean Sea, said Chuanmin Hu, an optical oceanography professor who helps produce the reports.

“I was scared,” he recalled feeling when he saw the historic number for June. He noted it was 20% higher than the previous record set in May 2018. Hu compiled additional data for The Associated Press that showed sargassum levels for the eastern Caribbean at a near record high this year, second only to those reported in July 2018. Levels in the northern Caribbean are at their third highest, following July 2018 and July 2021, he said. Scientists say more research is needed to determine why sargassum levels in the region are reaching new highs, but the United Nations’ Caribbean Environment Program says possible factors include a rise in water temperatures as a result of climate change and nitrogen-laden fertilizers and sewage waste fueling algae blooms.

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Long Beach is covered with sargassum in Crest Church parish along the south coast of Barbados on July 27.

Kofi Jones/AP

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Kofi Jones/AP

“This year has been the worst year on record,” said Lisa Krimsky, a researcher and faculty member with Florida Sea Grant and a water resources regional specialized agent at University of Florida. “It is absolutely devastating for the region.”

She said large masses of seaweed have a severe environmental impact, with decaying algae altering water temperatures and the pH balance as well as leading to declines in seagrass, coral reef and sponge populations. “They’re essentially being smothered out,” Krimsky said. The “golden tide” also has hit humans hard. The concentration of algae is so heavy in some parts of the eastern Caribbean that the French island of Guadeloupe issued a health alert in late July. It warned some communities about high levels of hydrogen sulfide emanating from huge rotting clumps of seaweed, which can affect people with respiratory problems including asthma.

The Biden administration declared a federal emergency after the U.S. Virgin Islands warned last month of “unusually high amounts” of sargassum affecting water production at a desalination plant near St. Croix that is struggling to meet demand amid a drought. “We’re consuming as much as we can produce right now,” said Daryl Jaschen, director of the islands’ emergency management agency. “We’re very concerned about that.” In addition, the U.S. Virgin Island’s electricity generating station relies on ultra-pure water from the desalination plant to reduce emissions monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The loss of such water would force the government to use a type of diesel fuel that is more expensive and in limited supply, officials said.
Experts first noted large amounts of sargassum in the Caribbean Sea in 2011 that Hu and other scientists think were created by stronger than normal winds and currents. The problem has worsened as clumps multiplied, fueled by nutrients and strong sunlight. “In the tropical Atlantic, everything was right,” Hu said. “Everything grows fast.”

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