The Massive Sargassum Seaweed Bloom of 2018: What It Means and What To Do

Sargassum has been washing ashore on Caribbean beaches at record levels this year--nearly 3x the last record set in 2015.

Sargassum seaweed is an important ecosystem in the Atlantic Ocean, but it can be devastating to Caribbean beaches. Many beach resorts are suffering from an unprecedented invasion of sargassum, causing some to close their doors during the current summer season. Many of the communities now being affected by seaweed are still recovering from Hurricane Irma, so bringing back tourism dollars is especially critical.

So what can be done to help? There are several innovative possibilities, but before providing sargassum solutions, it’s important to understand more about sargassum.

The Good and the Bad of Sargassum

In the Sargasso Sea, an area in the Atlantic Ocean covering 2 million square miles, massive floating rafts of Sargassum provide food and shelter for many species of fish, shrimp, turtle, and crabs—some of them endangered species. In moderate amounts, Sargassum washes up on beaches, providing a source of food for wildlife, and helping protect the beach from wind and water erosion. 

However, excessive amounts of Sargassum can starve the coastal waters of oxygen, causing mass fish death, and preventing endangered sea turtles from nesting. Natural vegetation that lives on the ocean floor can also die off—the murky seaweed blocking the natural light plants need to thrive.

Efforts to remove the seaweed may risk destabilizing beaches causing erosion and crushing sea turtle nests. Therefore, most cleanup efforts require extra caution and intense manual labor and painstaking raking. As the seaweed washes onshore, it piles up and decays, which attracts invasive insects. It also releases a toxic gas called hydrogen sulfide. Many cleanup crews have experienced hydrogen sulfide poisoning from exposure to large amounts of decaying Sargassum with flu-like symptoms: nausea, headaches, and eye and skin irritation.

Hydrogen sulfide is also particularly corrosive, leading to
rapid damage to A/C equipment, electrical systems, and plumbing in nearby areas. Schools, hotels and resorts, restaurants, and even sailing clubs have been seeing the effects of Sargassum reaching into their pockets. The invasive seaweed causes closures, lost tourism dollars, and requires ongoing cleanup throughout the summer months when Sargassum is flourishing.

What causes these massive seaweed blooms? Leading researcher
Brian LaPointe of Florida Atlantic University states that “our research has found that nitrogen and phosphorus from land-based runoff and pollutants, including nitrogen-heavy fertilizers and sewage waste, are washing into rivers such as the Mississippi and the Amazon. This fuels sargassum growth.”

And grow it does. In 2015, the last record Sargassum bloom affected large swaths of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and even caused
Mexico to deploy its military to deal with the issue.

Sargassum’s Record Breaking Influx and Impact to the Caribbean

The University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab analyzes satellite imagery to predict troublesome Sargassum blooms. 

In January, 2018, researchers detected an abnormal amount of Sargassum in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic, predicting that 2018 would be a major year for Sargassum blooms. They were correct. In the chart, it is shown that as of June 2018, the Sargassum levels are nearly 3x the record breaking high of 2015.

The natural ocean currents help to predict where the sargassum will travel. 

Those currents have driven the sargassum right into the Caribbean, and along the Central American eastern coastline.

The effects on the environment and tourism industry this year have already been devastating. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States met recently to discuss the impact of Sargassum in the Windward Islands. Barbados’ National Conservation Commission has called their fight against Sargassum “a valiant battle,” as the seaweed inundates its northern, eastern, and southern coastlines. Jamaica’s government has allocated $5 million for the removal of Sargassum from its beaches. South Florida has also seen mass deposits of Sargassum, especially in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale

On Martinique, incredible amounts of Sargassum have been choking local waterways. The French government is planning an intervention, allocating £3.5 million to supply some of its islands in the Caribbean with tractors, gas masks, and other equipment. On Martinique especially, piles of Sargassum have been responsible for mass fish death and even a school closure. On Grand Cayman, the Department of Environment asks to be consulted before any cleanup attempt, and have forbidden the use of heavy machinery without written consent. In Cayman Brac, sea turtle hatchlings were found entangled in masses of Sargassum, unable to reach the shore.

Unique Problems Call for Unique Solutions

GEI Works not only manufactures unique product solutions for environmental issues, we are continually learning about new methods and procedures for mitigating disasters like the Sargassum Bloom of 2018.

Clean beaches matter. In 2015, when the last record bloom struck the Caribbean, we sent a team to the Dominican Republic to learn more about the invasive seaweed while our production team worked overtime to construct a solution that could be immediately deployed. When sargassum is overwhelming your beach, immediate action is needed. GEI Works can quickly mobilize to get the fast answers that are needed.

We have worked with many beach resorts and communities in a variety of coastal locations. We help them with their emergency sargassum problems, providing the fast response they need to get the sargassum under control. The areas we have provided solutions to include:

  • Antigua
  • Turks & Caicos
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Grand Cayman
  • Dominican Republic
  • Belize
  • Florida Keys
  • New York
  • Dania Beach
  • And Many Others in the U.S. and the Caribbean

For Sargassum control, we usually recommend a sargassum containment boom or a permanent boom for longer-term containment. The booms work in calm or moving water, varying tidal conditions, and are built to withstand UV-exposure and extreme temperatures. Anchoring the entire structure is essential. Protect your investment with our full line of accessories for the booms, including anchoring kits. These help stabilize and support the boom and maximize effectiveness. 

The Orion Aquatic Plant and Containment Boom helps contain Sargassum blooms in three different ways.

  • Deflection: use the Aquatic Plant Boom to keep Sargassum off the beach. This is particularly useful in coves or protected beaches. The containment boom floats on the surface of the water, allowing fish, sea turtles, and other marine life to pass underneath it.
  • Diversion: use the Aquatic Plant Boom to deflect Sargassum from hotel and resort beaches to nearby beaches where it can be collected. Reduces the impact on the tourism industry.
  • Containment: Use the containment boom to collect Sargassum in open water where it can be collected. 

Your project’s budget, specifications, requirements, and environmental conditions factor into the specific sargassum solution that’s right for you. That’s why we work with each client individually and consult global experts to help find the right solution for your needs. If you’re experiencing issues with Sargassum, we are interested in hearing from you. Rather than simply suggesting a product, we seek the right solutions! 

Contact GEI Works to receive help and to discuss your Sargassum issues at +1-772-646-0597.

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