We’ve shoveled it, swept it, dumped it and avoided it altogether. We’ve speculated over where it comes from and we’ve examined how we could recycle it. But nothing we do seems to stop the unwelcome guest to our once pristine shores. Yes, I’m talking about Sargassum Seaweed. Scientific names vary, as do the sources (some say Mexico, some say China).
But generally it seems to be accepted that Sargassum is a genus of brown macroalgae in the order Fucales. Numerous species are distributed throughout the temperate and tropical oceans of the world, where they generally inhabit shallow water and coral reefs, and the genus is widely known for its planktonic (free-floating) species. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but for most Bajans and tourists it’s a tangled itchy nuisance disturbing their seaside fun.
My first stop on my tour Across Country was the popular Browne’s Beach. Known for its low tides, kid-friendly atmosphere and popularity for water sports, this stretch of shoreline is now a long band of brown seaweed and decidedly fewer sun worshippers on a Saturday afternoon.
South Coast resident Tiffany Skinner was more than a little miffed that she and her friends had to drive all the way to Bay Street to find a stretch of beach where the sand was still relatively visible. “I recognize and I know that it’s good for the marine environment, but it’s bad for tourism and it’s bad for us as residents [because] this is where we enjoy our free time. It’s where we exercise.” said the golden-haired beauty.
Her friend Jacqui Charles, a Silver Sands resident, has a more utilitarian approach to the issue. Yes the seaweed is an irritant, but Jacqui wants to know why the phenomenon isn’t being studied, researched and added to an existing body of academic work for future reference. From a tourism point of view, she calls the influx of Sargassum seaweed a “PR travesty”.
“My feelings are more about the continued negligence of it as an issue . . . I think in the world of Instagram and immediate reports, it should be managed. From a marine point of view, absolutely, I understand that it’s gold, but we are not doing anything with the gold the sea has given us . . . [We should] use the wonderful marine biologists we have here at UWI. This is a project, there should be interns all over the beach!” she opined emphatically.
The lifeguard on duty on the beach behind the military cemetery near the Hilton says he has been watching the gradual increase of the seaweed washing up onshore over a few months. He declined to have his name and have his face published but said the Saturday I visited was the worst he’d ever seen it, with seaweed stacked up to five feet deep and some buried under the sand. Funny enough, he said, local surfers seemed unaffected.
“They are good swimmers and they look out for each other.”
Despite the inconvenience, Shelly Mahy and her family still keep up the tradition of a lime on Saturday on Browne’s Beach. She admitted that the swirling, tangled, itchy mass of seaweed, along with the added responsibility of guiding her young toddler into the water, was a bit stressful. But in her estimation, nature should be able to take its course.
“At the end of the day we can’t fight nature, so as much as it is annoying if we want to enjoy the beach we have to take the beach as it comes, whether the tide high, whether the seaweed is in, we have to just roll with the tide, no pun intended.”
Even the short-term solutions have not found favour with Mahy. “The problem with the tractors shoveling it off is that it goes into mounds and the mounds deteriorate with the sun and then it smells horrible. I prefer to leave it in its natural environment, let the tide bring it in, clean it, send it back out, bring it back in, rather than stack it up, because it brings flies and other vermin . . . and the stench is horrendous.”
Further up the coast the usually busy Sir Richard Haynes Boardwalk was uncharacteristically quiet and it was obvious that the smell of the decaying Sargassum that had settled on the rocks just beyond Blakey’s was a turn off. Julie and her family regularly go for strolls there and she suggested that more of a volunteer/community effort should be put in to clear the foul smelling weed, despite whatever value it may have to our ecosystem.
“I know they’ve been doing some work to clean it up, but it still needs a lot to be done . . . You could even get the kids involved. Of course every effort is costly, but … I know there are [volunteer] groups that are cleaning up other parts of the country. Maybe we should establish more along the southeast coast to clean up some of this because it’s not going away any time,” she said.
As my afternoon came to a close, I had a quick chat with some of the tourists dining near the sea at Tapas restaurant. They said the seaweed wasn’t so bothersome once they got out into the relatively clear water. However, the question remains, what do we do with these shores sheeted in Sargassum Seaweed, which seems to be coming in on the tides faster than we can manage it? Next time I’m About Town I intend to check out the rest of Barbados’ coastline and get some insight from the people who are most likely to understand this phenomenon.