Wide Sargassum sea

As coastlines across the Caribbean are inundated by masses of floating Sargassum weed, some entrepreneurs are trying to put the seaweed to good use. Shelly-Ann Inniss investigates

Sargassum weed accumulating on Barbados’s east coast. Photograph by Romel HallSargassum weed, the bane of beaches across the Antilles. Photograph by VargaJones / istock.com

On my last flight to Barbados, I looked out of the aircraft window and saw scattered masses of brown matter floating on the sea. For a moment, I thought it was refuse released from a vessel. But as we flew over the shoreline even greater quantities of this brown mass engulfed the beach, covering the usually pristine sand.

Barbados is not alone in the incursion of Sargassum weed. In recent months, other islands up and down the Caribbean chain have also had their shores inundated with huge accumulations of this leafy brown sea plant, laden with berry-like airbladders keeping it afloat. And it’s taking a serious toll. On some popular beaches in Barbados, there is no longer a rush to ride the jet skis, rent kayaks, or do watersports. The clatter from rakes and shovels and the swish of garbage bags blowing in the wind have replaced the once familiar sound of crashing waves and laughter. Clean-up crews work assiduously to remove the seaweed, starting before the break of dawn and toiling until noon each day. Instead of soliciting people to enjoy the sea, watersports operators are left to find other ways to make ends meet until the Sargassum is cleared enough for them to work.

Dr Lorna Inniss, director of Barbados’s Coastal Zone Management Unit, explains that Sargassum seaweed is generated in the Sargasso Sea, north of the Caribbean. Bits and pieces of the weed become entrained in ocean currents and are carried towards our islands. As the sea temperature increases, greater quantities of Sargassum are likely to make their way to Caribbean beaches.

In moderation, Sargassum is a crucial part of the marine ecosystem, providing shelter and food for young fish, crabs, shrimp, and other organisms. But in its current massive quantities, the weed also endangers the lives of other sea creatures. Turtles and dolphins have met their demise in dense masses of the seaweed on some beaches of Barbados. Some days, the weed blankets the sea at low tide. The end never seems to be in sight. And it isn’t a problem only for tourism and marine life. Piling up to over three feet at some parts of the coast in Trinidad and Tobago, Sargassum has worn out the motors of fishing boats, causing fisher-folk to lose income. This in turn affects consumers of fish, and a drop in the supply of fish usually leads to a huge spike in the price. In these tough economic times that’s another depressing prospect.

 

But not everyone views the recent Sargassum invasion with despair. Take eighty-six-year-old Barbadian entrepreneur Cavendish Atwell, for example. The retired civil engineer and former owner of the now defunct Barbados Mirror recalls seeing Sargassum at Graeme Hall Beach when he was a child. “In those days, the seaweed wasn’t much, so people collected it and dumped it in the cane fields,” he says. This gave him the idea to process Sargassum as a fertiliser.

Four years ago, Atwell began collecting Sargassum weed, sun-drying, de-sanding, and grinding it to use as fertiliser in his home garden. It took more than six months of trial and error before he perfected it. Government laboratory–tested and now branded as Ocean Surf Organic Local Garden Mulch, Atwell sells the fertiliser to several stores in Barbados, including a supermarket chain.

He even turned himself into a guinea pig, and ate the berries from Sargassum strands while taking a sea bath with some friends. “The berries keep the seaweed alive, so they’re packed with nutrients,” says Atwell. “They can’t be poisonous, because I’m still here.” And indeed in South America and Asia long-leaved gulfweed (Sargassum filipendula) is used in cuisine. Perhaps with our Caribbean ingenuity we can experiment and create a number of exotic Sargassum dishes. Sushi rolls and seaweed salad may be a good place to start.

Atwell believes Caribbean governments should look at the seaweed as a blessing, and invest resources into capturing its potential. For centuries, the Chinese have used this brown seaweed in traditional medicine. Rich in iodine, Sargassum is used to treat goitres, thyroid disorders, and pain from hernias, and also as a diuretic. Once the weed is cleaned, treated, and processed, the Chinese manufacturers package it into sachets of tea as a dietary supplement.

There may be opportunities for the beauty industry too. Nutrient-rich extracts of long-leaved gulfweed have been used to create products which treat oily skin and reduce signs of aging. Massage oils, lotions, face masks, moisturisers: if you’re adventurous and want to try making your own concoction, there’s no better time than the present.

So although Sargassum is currently seen as a nuisance, deep in its tangles and tendrils are opportunities for affected countries. With research, will-power, good old elbow grease, and a pair of gloves, this seaweed has the potential to boost failing economies, as well as create entirely new industries. I can’t tell when my plans for playing beach tennis, sipping cocktails on the sand, and bathing in weed-free sea will become a reality, but the more pressing question is: what will we do next time there’s a Sargassum invasion?

 

Think you’re ready to give Sargassum weed a try in the kitchen? The website www.eattheweeds.com suggests several methods for preparing seaweed for human consumption, as used in the Hawaiian islands:

• stuff fish with leaves of the seaweed

• eat the seaweed raw with uncooked fish or octopus

• add the leaves to soups and chowders

• sun-dry the leaves and serve like chips, or fry them and sprinkle with salt