Regional Response Needed to Curtail Growing Sargassum Threats, Says Jamaica’s Tourism Minister

KINGSTON, Jamaica, Monday July 29, 2019 – Jamaica’s Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, says a strong collective regional effort is needed to curtail the rapidly growing threats posed by the influx of sargassum seaweed in the Caribbean.

Among the interventions he is proposing, is the development of a comprehensive scientific initiative to devise the most efficient way to collect sargassum in the open sea without harming the ecosystem.

He was speaking at a regional roundtable forum at the University of the West Indies Regional Headquarters in St Andrew, under the theme: ‘Sargassum and the Caribbean: Resilience, Innovation and Solutions’.

Bartlett noted that “masses” of sargassum, which have washed onto beaches along the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the tropical Atlantic, have smothered coral reefs, and trapped several species of marine life. Additionally, he said the influxes have adversely impacted tourism, fishery and nautical activities such as diving, kite surfing and windsurfing, which have contributed to, among other things, economic instability within coastal communities dependent on these engagements.

The Tourism Minister further pointed out that sargassum has destroyed colonies of mangroves which has, in the process, contributed to the demise of turtles and fish species, and impacted human health due to decomposition of algae and the release of hydrogen sulfide.

Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett

He said the Caribbean has been experiencing “colossal influxes” of sargassum over the last nine years.

2011 marked the start of the influx of the sargassum seaweed, and it continued in 2014 and 2015, but reached unprecedented levels in 2018, with more sargassum affecting the Caribbean for a longer period of time than previously observed.

The phenomenon is believed to be driven by a combination of man-made and natural factors that Bartlett indicated include: climate change and increased sea surface temperature; change in regional winds and ocean current patterns; the increased presence of Saharan dust; and nutrients from rivers, sewage and nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Experts have warned that sargassum influxes will become the new norm which, if not dealt with urgently, will cause irreversible long-term damage.

“Currently, a mass of sargassum algae, measuring 550 kilometres in length, roughly the same size as Jamaica, is affecting the Mexican Coast and stretches all the way south along the Yucatan Peninsula to Belize,” Bartlett said, noting that sargassum influxes have been having adverse effects on national and regional economies with substantial loss of livelihoods and economic opportunities, primarily in the fisheries and tourism sectors over the last eight years.

“It has already been estimated that tourism has dropped as much as 35 per cent as a consequence of sargassum algae washing up on a 480-kilometre-long stretch of otherwise pristine Caribbean beaches.”

He pointed out that colleague Tourism Ministers and industry stakeholders across the Caribbean have voiced growing concern about the seaweed’s unsightly appearance, visitor complaints, the cost of removal, and the possibility of reputational damage.

Citing a Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association survey, Bartlett said in recent months, some regional establishment have been receiving queries and cancellations from prospective guests.

Some hotels directly impacted by sargassum are also incurring huge costs for cleaning up and other related activities. In 2018, the estimated clean-up cost was US$120 million.

Studies show that while sargassum is an essential habitat for some species of fish and invertebrates and provides shelter and food for sea turtles and commercially important fish like tuna, excessive quantities can result in beach erosion and negatively impact marine life.

The seaweed merges into large mats and is transported by ocean currents towards the Caribbean, washing up on beaches throughout the region. As it accumulates and decomposes on the seashore, it becomes highly pungent and attracts insects.

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