Seaweed invades the Virgin Islands

ROAD TOWN, Tortola, VI – The Virgin Islands, like many other islands in the Caribbean, is being visited by a not so welcomed guest. Depending on where you are, you’re more likely to smell it before setting eyes on it.

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It is the dreaded sargassum seaweed and it is certainly coming to a beach near you if it has not already reached there.

This news site yesterday September 28, 2015 visited a number of locations along the coast to get a first-hand look at the extent of the sargassum invasion and one could only marvel at the volume of the vegetation which has washed ashore from Pockwood Pond to Brandywine Bay.

Clean up at Dolphin Discovery

As this news site made its way to Road Town we saw a massive clean-up activity underway at Dolphin Discovery and the surrounding environs of Prospect Reef.

350x_2_20150928_120358_resizedGeneral Manager of Swim with the Dolphins Emmanuel Gilbert explained that they shut down the operations for two days to allow for the clean-up exercise and that the facility will be open again on Wednesday September 30, 2015.

He said, « As you can see we have some sargassum inside and we are already cleaning it. We have some pumps pushing the water to the other side. We don’t have business today neither tomorrow…until Wednesday. »

Mr Gilbert noted that this is the first time he has seen this amount of sargassum. « We hired some machines to take the sargassum out, » he said.

Matter engaging Government’s attention

350x_2_20150928_122912_resizedWhen we made contact with the acting Chief Conservation and Fisheries Officer of the Conservation and Fisheries Department, Kelvin Penn, he advised that we get in contact with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources Mr Ronald F. Smith-Berkeley.

Efforts to reach Smith-Berkeley were futile yesterday.

Acknowledging the extent of the problem, the Ministry of Natural Resources had issued a press statement back in July 2015 saying that there were plans to purchase specialised equipment to get the sargassum out of the water.

“The Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour is confirming that the Sargassum Seaweed that has washed along the Territory’s beaches and shorelines has many benefits and advantages to fisheries in the Virgin Islands,” it said.

350x_b_brandywine_bay_2“Permanent Secretary within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour, Mr. Ronald Smith-Berkeley said that the Ministry is currently making efforts towards purchasing a special machine that can remove the seaweed from the ocean and another from the shoreline.

Mr. Smith-Berkeley added, “Along with these efforts, we are also now, in discussions with our colleagues in the region facing similar issues, as we look for solutions and share best management practices when it comes to the seaweed.”

Worst year ever

350x_b_behind_mulligans_2According to an article on www.travelweekly.com, this summer’s invasion of sargassum, stretches from the beaches of Palm Beach County and Key West in Florida as far south as Tulum on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

“The east and south coasts of Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Tobago and Cancun have been particularly hard hit, but other islands, too, have battled the invasion. Sargassum also is a problem along sections of the Texas Gulf coast, especially Galveston, although a slight shift in ocean currents has spared the region from the seaweed onslaught of last summer,” said the online publication.

“This is the worst year ever,” the article quotes Brian Lapointe, a professor and oceanographer with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, as saying. “I’d say we have hit a crisis level. There’s been an increase in the frequency and the extent of sargassum coming ashore, choking scenic coves and piling as high as 10 feet on some beaches.”

A scientific perspective from Dr Cassandra Titley O’Neal

When we reached out to local environmentalist Dr Cassandra Titley O’Neal, she gave a scientific perspective on the issue. “The blooms that we are experiencing are good and bad,” she said.

“The good points are that it (1) plays a role in beach nourishment for plants that grow in the dunes as well as birds; and (2) shoreline stability; however, not in as large a quantity that we are experiencing now,” she said.

Dr Titley O’Neal explained that the pungent smell is from the natural decomposition where hydrogen sulphide is given off.

“In cases of severe decomposition where the smell can reach roughly 3 to 5 parts per million, prolonged exposure can lead to nausea, headaches, tearing of eyes, and loss of sleep.”

350x_p_pockwood_pond_2She said for persons suffering from asthma they may experience airway problems. “Other health issues related to hydrogen sulphide exposure may include fatigue, loss of appetite, dizziness, and irritability,” she said.

“If the seaweed is not cleaned up and the concentration of hydrogen sulphide exceeds 100 parts per million the effects increase, including include eye irritation, olfactory fatigue, and drowsiness,” she pointed out.

Dr Titley O’Neal explained that the vegetation is good for ecological reasons, ensuring shoreline stability. “The plants get the nutrients they need to grow and as they grow their roots expand and this helps hold the sand in place.”

“Sargassum is a ‘floating hotel’ with shrimp, worms and many other small organisms which provide a source of food for many shore birds, ensuing ecological balance,” explained the Virgin Islands environmentalist.

She further explained that the build-up of the vegetation cannot be controlled. “It originates from the Sargasso Sea where nutrient input is high and water temperature is warm; a perfect recipe for it to grow and when it gets too large it breaks off and drifts here with the currents,” she explained.

Dr Titley O’Neal said removal of sargassum from the different beaches depends on the method to be used “as you don’t want to damage the dunes and plants that grow there.”

Source : Virgin Islands News Online 6