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Sea Potential – Scientists seek opportunity in sargassum threat So not only does sargassum perhaps have the potential to form the basis of new industries, it could perhaps contribute to sustainable development? This seems quite hopeful for what at present is seen by many as an unsightly menace, fouling beaches and hurting coastal activities. Can sargassum really be a miracle in disguise? Wide Sargassum Sea There are estimated to be over 250 species of sargassum waving slowly in shallow seas throughout the world. But there are two species of the brown moss that never attach to the sea floor. These free floaters form thick mats of seaweed most common in the North Atlantic in an area known as the Sargasso Sea. The sargassum has been there for hundreds of years. Columbus’s crew was terrified that they would be stuck in the seaweed on one of their return journeys from the New World. Out in the open ocean the sargassum is a haven for life, an upside down “reef ” supporting a huge biodiversity. The Sargasso Sea is so important to the ecosystem of the North Atlantic that environmental groups are dedicated to its protection. The problem arises however, when sargassum makes its way to coastlines—and it has been doing so for many years. “Mass landings of sargassum are nothing new,” says Professor Hazel Oxenford of the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) at The UWI Cave Hill Campus. Professor Oxenford has given presentations on the causes of the current phenomenon at both the Sargassum Symposium and symposium hosted by the Association of African and Caribbean States (ACS) and the Caribbean Sea Commission (CSC) in November 2015 in Trinidad and Tobago in collaboration with senior research scientist Jim Franks of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, University of Southern Mississippi. Dr. Franks has been studying sargassum for some time and has developed a theory on the origins of the seaweed bloom that began in 2011. Sargassum moss usually travels south from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, entering the Caribbean through the Anegada Passage, the Mona Passage, the Windward Passage and the Florida Straits, where it then gets swept westward back into the Gulf of Mexico. From all the evidence however, it seems the sargassum invasion that is currently affecting the wider Caribbean Sea and coastlines of West Africa is coming from somewhere else. 22 – THE PELICAN/ISSUE 14

“This sargassum is coming into the region from the southeast,” Professor Oxenford says, “it is originating from a new source along the equator.” Using a mix of satellite technologies and shipboard observations to detect presence of floating sargassum masses, water, temperature and sea surface currents, scientists believe they have pinpointed the location of this new sargassum bloom, an enormous area of sea between South America and Africa known as the North Equatorial Re-circulation Region (NERR). The exact causes of the bloom are yet to be determined although evidence points to significant oscillations in the climate and ocean circulation patterns and in the temperature of surface waters (meaning that global warming could be a significant contributing factor). The Seaweed Industry Figures on the global seaweed processing industry estimate that as much as 12 million tonnes are used per year. The vast majority of earnings come from food consumption in Asian and Pacific countries like China, Japan, Hawaii, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where certain types of seaweeds are considered a delicacy. China and Japan are also major processors of seaweed. However, food is far from the only potential use of sargassum. Seaweed can be used as a source of alginate—a thickening agent widely used in the production of a host of items—animal feed, food, textiles, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and even welding rods. Its use in green industries includes bioabsorption. Seaweed can absorb contaminants like heavy metals from polluted effluents in a less expensive but more effective manner than current technologies. It also has potential as an agricultural resource that can improve soil health and plant growth, assist with resistance to environmental stress and reduce the costs of agricultural production. Sargassum has already been used in pilot studies by UWI student Mark Hill as the raw material for green products such as soaps and chipboard, and has been the subject of innovative research by students of Dr. Srinivasa Popuri in the Department of Biological and Chemical Sciences to make soap, body washes and gels. Seaweed may also be a compelling biofuel alternative as an ethanol producer. Biofuel is commonly produced from corn and sugar, food crops, which drives up the prices of these commodities. It also uses up fresh water. Seaweed does not have these drawbacks. It should be noted that when discussing these many products that can come from sargassum, the


UWI Pelican Issue 14