Sunday, 21 September 2014

Clean Up Barbados Day 2014 : The Invasion of the Sargassum Seaweed

My island has been fighting against the ravages of the Sargassum seaweed for many a month now.

Sargussum seaweed washing up en masse on a beach
Image borrowed from

During May to September, the sea brings the Sargassum seaweed to our shores, but a couple of years ago (2011) our Atlantic coast beaches were invaded by huge deposits of the mat-like substance which began washing up as a result of the change of weather and temperature patterns.
It posed serious problems for our local ecosystems and our tourism and fishing industries.
Fishermen had never seen anything like it in all their years of fishing.
Never before had we seen such a huge accumulation of the seaweed in the region.

This year (three years later) seems to be a repeat of the phenomenon, and our beaches have been inundated by the seaweed once again.

Yesterday was Clean Up Barbados Day 2014,  International Coastal Cleanup in Barbados, which is an annual event, I thought I would visit one of our popular beaches to capture the cleanup effort which was coordinated by the local Barbados chapter of CYEN (Caribbean Youth Environmental Network) and the Future Centre Trust.
The theme this year was "Coast to Boast About:Cleaning with a Meaning."
Across the island all areas are targeted including gullies, roadsides and beaches.
The days beaches were:
 Long Beach,Christ Church
Maxwell, Christ Church
Batt's Rock, St. Michael
Browne's Beach , St. Michael
Brandon's Beach,St. Michael
Brighton, St. Michael
Pile Bay, St. Michael
Six Men’s, St. Peter
Morgan Lewis Beach, St. Andrew

The Sargasso Sea
Sargassum is a free floating algae that grows in the Sargasso Sea, a large body of warm water in the mid-Atlantic.
This remarkable body of water is like a tideless pool encircled by sea oasis....a sanctuary....a dead sea in the middle of a whirling ocean....its name derived from the curious amber-coloured weed that grows there.
There are many types of algae floating in the oceans worldwide, but the Sargasso Sea is unique in that it has a species of sargassum that are "holopelagi" - algae that floats freely around the ocean and reproduces vegetatively on the high seas. Most other seaweeds reproduce and begin life on the ocean floor.
All other seas in the world are defined with a land boundary, but the Sargasso Sea is defined only by ocean currents. It lies within the Northern Atlantic Subtropical Gyre. Its western boundary is The Gulf Stream, while being defined to the north by the North Atlantic Current, the east by the Canary Current, and the south by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. 
The Sargasso Sea has a mat of Sargassum approximately 3,520,000 km² in size; an area three times the size of South Africa!

According to Wikipedia, it was originally named by Portugese sailors as “Sargaco”, due to the resemblance of a rock rose species that grew in their water wells at home.

Under normal circumstances, the currents surrounding the Sargasso Sea work to keep the Sargassum located in the Sargasso Sea, but during this time of the year with strong prevailing winds and storm/hurricane activity, the weed is broken off from the larger mats and dispersed throughout the region by the spiraling currents. The weed is then carried along until it is swept towards the Caribbean islands where local currents wash it ashore. It is a natural phenomenon that occurs cyclically.

I must point out that there are usually small amounts of the weed on our shores from May to September but the large gobs that have been washing up recently are ugly and demand major attention.
Barbados is a tourism-driven economy, and having this unwanted visitor on our beaches is a headache. 
The Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU), a department of the Ministry of Environment and Drainage, is  responsible for the management of Barbados' beautiful coastline.  The seaweed's presence is a national worry and daily deployed clean-up crews can hardly keep up.
Yesterday being my jaunt day, I decided to visit Browne's Beach and check in on the cleanup activities.
 Arriving on the beach, everything seemed normal....a lively volleyball game was ongoing.
Pleasure boats were loading up with passengers.

The volunteer cleanup crew from the Children's Variety Club had already cleaned a stretch of the  beach......
........and bagged the seaweed.
However, further down the beach, the Sargassum weed was still there with its pungent smell.
The seaweed is okay when floating in the water, but once it comes ashore, it is slow to decompose resulting in a foul smell.....not a pretty sight or smell for beach goers.
My girlfriend who goes to the beach after work most afternoons mentioned the awful smell and the flies that are attracted to it.

This slimy  free floating algae has been washing ashore our north, south and eastern coasts in gobs.
This species is a macro-algae called Sargussum fluitans (sargassum seaweed), a free-floating algae found on the open sea surface of the Sargasso Sea. In our region it is usually found with Sargasso weed (Sargassum natans) that is native to the Caribbean.
 The Sargussum weed spends its entire life afloat and drifting with ocean currents.  The seaweed mats are home for a variety of animals including crabs, shrimp, and also many species of fish, some of which have adapted specifically to the floating algae.
The Sargasso Sea is a spawning site for white marlin, porbeagle shark and dolphin fish.
The mats provide protection for juvenille sea turtles and are sanctuaries for sea birds as well.
Humpback whales migrate annually through the Sargasso Sea as well as other commercial fish like tuna. The birds that migrate through the Sargasso Sea depend on it for food.
 The floating seaweed mass also plays a major role in the migration of the European Eel and the American Eel. The larvae of both species hatch there and go to Europe or the East Coast of North America. Later in life, they try to return to the Sargasso Sea to lay eggs.
It can't be stated enough that the Sargasso Sea is a special and much needed ecosystem.
The weed is harmless in the water but once ashore is rather unattractive as it  starts to break down giving off a decaying smell.
It grows and multiplies in the sea as it drifts to and fro with no roots to adhere to anything.
The weed has a number of air bladders that resemble grape-like berries on its branches that help it to stay afloat.
No one seems to fully know the origin of this strange  rootless plant.
Our once spotless beaches have been taken over.

By the time I walked back up the beach, the volunteers had filled more bags.....

.......and the beach was pretty again.
For how long though was another matter.
As I wandered back to find Beast, I saw this little crab hustling to wherever he/she was going to...probably knew that as soon as the beach was cleaned, that another wave of seaweed will settle once again on the beach and thus it would be better to move to higher crab!

Hopefully in the future, all the Caribbean region heads will take the time to come up with more innovative ways to fight the seaweed in the future....there just has to be a better way.
My two cents worth here: I would trap it in large boat drawn nets before it even comes shore.
It makes a great fertilizer for garden plants, and one local entrepreneur has made good use of the seaweed.

Sargassum weed entrepreneur Link here
A video of the first invasion in 2011 here. 
The south/south east states of the US as well.



  1. If harvesting the weed can become commercial that might help solve the problem as well.

    1. A few folks have been gathering the seaweed and using as fertilizer in the garden, but no grand scale commercialization on the horizon as far as I can tell.

  2. I always remember the Sargasso Sea from schooldays and also from reading about maritime voyages in the 18th and 19th centuries when that sea and the Doldrums were two of the sailors' worst enemies. Your post gave many very interesting facts that I didn't know though. How about harvesting/removing it with a tractor pulling a ledge rake as they do in some places for other beach invasions.

    1. The Sargasso Sea has not had a very good reputation and neither does the seaweed.
      I am not sure what other methods the government agencies will employ for the eradication of the seaweed from our beaches but the tractor and ledge rake sounds like a good idea.


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