In late October 2019, representatives from the English and French Caribbean and a number of central and south American countries met to look at an ongoing problem – how to tackle sargassum.
Sargassum is the brown seaweed which has been turning up on some Caribbean coastlines, smothering sea grasses and coral reefs, clogging engines and the nets of local boats and releasing greenhouse gases while decomposing and generally plaguing beaches in the region over the last decade.
Caribbean Intelligence takes a look at some of the conference outcomes and other ways the region is finding to tackle sargassum.
- The first International Conference on Sargassum took place in Guadeloupe between 23 and 26 October. Delegations looked at defining a common political strategy and ways to engage stakeholders in the region and internationally.
- The Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), June Soomer, told the conference that there were three main battlegrounds: “The preservation of the Caribbean Sea, the environment and the fight against climate change.”
- The director of the Environmental Sustainability Cluster of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Chamberlain Emmanuel, spoke about the creation of a hub to explore concrete solutions and build resilience to the invasion of sargassum.
- The conference saw the launch of the European Union-funded INTERREG SARG'COOP project. The project is expected to create a centre that will deal with the observation of, monitoring of and warning about sargassum and develop a network of professionals to tackle the problem.
- The Regional Council of Guadeloupe was one of the main organisers of the conference. Council President Ary Chalus said: “We live in small islands and this maritime heritage has contributed to our economic development and a quality of life envied around the world.” He added: “Notwithstanding the exposure of our shoreline to the direct impacts of climate change, it would be a mistake to consider our insularity as a handicap. Because of their geographical position, countries and territories of the Caribbean must spearhead the environmental responsibility.”
- In the region, some groups and individuals are already finding creative way to turn sargassum into something positive. Mexican innovator Omar Vazquez Sanchez is receiving invitations from around the world to explore projects based on his sargassum-based building blocks. Inspired by his grandparents’ adobe house, Mr Vazquez developed the Sargablock and launched a company which he hopes will help poor families in Mexico. His first house, Casa Angelita (dedicated to his mother), drew global headlines. “I believe all human beings need and deserve a home,” Mr Vazquez told the Cayman Compass newspaper.
- The University of the West Indies (UWI) has been also applying science and technology to dealing with sargassum and has brought together experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and France. Two regional sargassum symposia, held at UWI’s Cave Hill campus in Barbados, invited scientists, the public and private sectors and the fishing and tourism industries. One of its research projects is to find a way to turn sargassum into fuel and products for agricultural use.
- Dutch shipbuilder Damen has also been exploring the possibility of converting sargassum into energy. Damen has formed the consortium Blue Caribbean Energy Solutions with Caribbean partners to look at turning the foul-smelling seaweed into methane.
- Pioneering Cayman Islands chef Thomas Tennant has an even more creative approach: he has been experimenting with the use of sargassum as an ingredient. He’s used the algae in hot sauces, as well as boiling it, frying it and fermenting it. His advice to the Cayman Compass is that “because it’s seaweed, it does contain some properties that exist with other seaweed, so some more umami flavours”. He jokes: “It’s not hard to find!” However, he adds a cautionary note for those seeking the possible new ingredient on local beaches: “If it doesn’t look edible, don’t do it.”