Sargassum to Systems – Environmental Reporting Gets a Boost in Saint Lucia

Figure 1: Map of Sargassum proliferation in 2017 across Jamaica – MGI Blue

In the Caribbean, like many other parts of the world, what may be signs of climate change are becoming more apparent and difficult to ignore. Seventeen (17) of the eighteen (18) warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, with 1998 being the exception to this trend. The frequency and severity of natural disasters such as droughts, hurricanes, cyclones, and flooding events are also increasing as global temperatures rise. The increase in global warming-induced natural hazard events also has secondary effects such as flash flooding, landslides, coastal erosion, and the latest phenomenon of Sargassum invasions. Sargassum spp is a genus of brown macroalgae typically found in temperate and tropical areas of the world, originating from the Sargasso Sea near the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantic Ocean.

Figure 2: The NEIS web platform created by the Mona Geoinformatics Institute and DE Design+Environment for the Ministry of Education, Innovation, Gender Relations and Sustainable Development to monitor local environmental conditions in Saint Lucia

The United Nations (UN) has been urging countries to focus on addressing the global warming crisis by way of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA) and the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030, with over half of the goals being directly related to the health of the natural environment. To better monitor the state of the environment and maintain their commitment to these MEA’s, the government of Saint Lucia recently contracted the services of the Mona Geoinformatics Institute (MGI). In collaboration with DE Design+Environment, MGI developed the Saint Lucia National Environmental Information System (NEIS); a web platform designed to more efficiently monitor and report local environmental conditions and events, see Figure 2. The overall objective for this platform is to ease the burden of sharing this information amongst relevant agencies and effectively increase the communication about these issues to minimize the effects of global warming and fulfill the protocols set by the UN.

Saint Lucia, much like Jamaica (see Photo 1 and Figure 1), has been a victim of Sargassum blooms that have been increasing in frequency and intensity since 2011. Reports have emerged from all across the Caribbean, Central America, the Southern United States, and even Western Africa stating that tonnes of Sargassum have been washing ashore in greater volumes each year. At times this invasive seaweed covered the east coast of Saint Lucia, resulting in widespread loss of marine life, disruption of local fishery activities, and declines in tourism due to the visual pollution and overwhelming stench of the decaying mounds of Sargassum, sometimes up to 7 metres (22 feet) high. Using platforms such as the NEIS, the proper documentation and reporting of these Sargassum events – including their prevailing environmental and hydrometeorological conditions – can potentially provide much needed support for scientists and environmental managers to better understand the causes as well as better predict when and where the blooms are likely to occur. The public can also access this information for building awareness of environmental issues.

Photo 1: A volunteer in Saint Lucia next to massive piles of Sargassum that washed up on the eastern coastline – Saint Lucia News

In the meantime, many individuals and agencies have been researching and developing innovative uses for this invasive species. Saint Lucian native, Mr. Johanon Dujon, for example, has created a line of all natural plant tonics and fertilizers from Sargassum called Algas Organics. Dujon first began thinking of ways to address the overwhelming issue of these Sargassum invasions in 2014 when he saw masses of it collecting on the eastern coast of the island, see Photos 2-4. He began to see solutions where most only saw a problem: what if the Sargassum could be used as a natural fertilizer, effectively solving the problem of the seaweed buildup as well as issues with importation of toxic fertilizers from abroad and in turn providing a much needed boost to the local agricultural industry. Researchers in Texas have been looking into potential uses of the Sargassum that can assist with securing shorelines and offsetting the threat of coastal erosion.

Photo 2: Aerial view of Sargassum buildups along the eastern coast of Saint Lucia – A Maxam

One such researcher Jim Gibeaut stated, “It would be very expensive to build a seawall with the same level of protection as a healthy dune system,” which led their teams to begin the process of baling the Sargassum with small amounts of sand to then be buried under the sand. This simultaneously rids the beaches of this visual and olfactory nuisance while securing the shoreline from further erosion. It is with these inventive problem-solving thought processes that we can combat adverse global warming effects while simultaneously striving toward a more sustainable world.

Photo 3: Ocean currents pull Sargassum into the bay near Mandele Point, Saint Lucia. – A Maxam

Photo 4: After being pulled by currents, the Sargassum then collects along the shore, where it then decomposes emitting hydrogen sulfide, a flammable toxic gas. – A Maxam