A strange brown island the size of Jamaica has appeared in the Atlantic Ocean. It has no name and appears on no maps yet it’s big enough to be seen from space. This is a floating island, a living thing that was spawned by Man’s misuse of the planet. The outliers of this monstrous mass have already reached the Caribbean, threatening island economies and smothering wildlife. Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Guadeloupe and Martinique have all seen their pristine beaches covered in a thick brown sludge that releases sulphurous fumes and reeks of rotten eggs.
It sounds like the scenario for a 1950s horror movie, but it’s all too real. The USA’s over-use of fertilisers, deforestation in the Amazon region and climate change have created the perfect conditions for an “algal explosion” in the mid-Atlantic.
The brown ‘island’ is made up of a type of seaweed called sargassum. Clusters of grape-sized bladders keep it afloat, and in normal times it supports a wonderful diversity of marine life. But these are not normal times, and close to shore the dense blanket of seaweed literally suffocates everything it covers, smothering corals, releasing toxic gases, acidifying coastal waters and turning once-beautiful beaches into foetid no-go areas for tourists and locals alike.
Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley said of this year’s predicted sargassum invasion: “I believe that its impact will be as devastating as… a strong tropical storm or a Category 1 hurricane.” She warned that the seaweed – which first reached Barbados in 2011 – threatens the survival of fishing communities because it blocks ports and makes it impossible to use fishing boats.
Caricom countries are taking the threat seriously. In Jamaica, the Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre is partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop proactive strategies against the slimy menace from the sea. The aim of the research will be to “prevent sargassum from populating our shores”, said tourism minister Edmund Bartlett.
But there could be a silver lining to the mud-coloured carpet, an economic windfall from the seaweed’s landfall. The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt has grown obese because it has been overfed with fertiliser running into the sea from America’s badly managed farms. And that means sargassum is stuffed full of nutrients.
Fertilising his pension
An 82-year-old Barbadian man is among the first to have taken advantage of the free resource on his doorstep. Cavendish Atwell takes the seaweed off the beach, removes the sand, dries it outdoors under the sun (the evaporation also helps remove much of the salt) then rubs the now-crispy fronds through a sieve to create a fine powder that he bags up and sells to small farmers and gardeners. “In retirement you want to do something,” says Mr Atwell modestly – and he may well have laid the foundations for a whole new industry in Barbados. (You can watch the inspirational entrepreneur at work in a short video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nkRU0-4Kf8.)
Over in Saint Lucia, Johanan Dujon had the same idea and is also turning sargassum into organic fertiliser. His company, Algas Organics, has processed 1,340 tons of seaweed in the past four years – and cleaned a lot of beaches at the same time.
Dujon told the magazine Global Finance: “I started this company with a vision to convert what many people saw as an environmental and economic threat into the world’s most innovative fertiliser company.”
Sargassum has potential as animal feed and fish food, such as for commercial fish farms. Extracts of seaweed are also extensively used in high-end cosmetics. And if all else fails, it can generate energy in biomass power stations.
Perhaps the most direct way everyone can benefit from the brown ‘menace’ is simply to go to the beach, pick up the sargassum, wash it thoroughly… and eat it. Along with other types of seaweed, sargassum is a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine, and a web search will bring up many interesting recipes. It is nutritious and high in proteins, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and dietary fibre. Sargassum contains compounds that are known to be anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral, so may prove to be a valuable source of pharmaceutical ingredients in due course.
If US and Brazilian farmers continue to waste their own money pouring fertiliser into the sea, the sargassum harvest could become an annual event in the Caribbean, with America’s loss becoming the islands’ gain.