Ever since sargassum seaweed started washing up on the shores of this island, Barbados has been faced with the dilemma of viewing the stinking clumps of algae as either an economic asset or existential threat.
It is neither and it is both.
One thing is clear from all the available science – this is the most graphic example of human effect on the marine environment in this Anthropocene age – the first epoch of Earth’s existence of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecology, including, among other things, climate change.
It is time for us to approach sargassum not as a short-term bugbear but as both a long-term problem and opportunity.
In Mandarin Chinese, the character for “crisis” is the same as that for “opportunity”; ironic, perhaps for China, we believe, should be among those nations that Barbados should engage in the quest for solutions to the sargassum problem.
These solutions tend toward the opportunity side of the equation, in the raking, sorting, drying and converting of sargassum seaweed into a variety of materials already being discovered and some yet to be thought of.
China, among several other nations, could help boost our own scientific research and technological development as we try to understand this phenomenon and the potential it may yet hold for economic development.
Sargassum is a plant; therefore, it is capable of producing food, fuel or fibre or all three.
From fertilizers to building materials, developers, inventors and innovators in various nations are discovering hitherto unimaginable possibilities in sargassum.
Here at home, we should also pay attention to the crisis most obvious to many – it’s potential to clog our beaches and drive fickle tourists away.
Tourism is a very jealous mistress. And it takes but a few years of persistent, annoying seaweed to push visitors to the next holiday hotspot, which may very well not be in the Caribbean at all.
But apart from gathering, clearing and cleaning sargassum, there are other issues particularly regarding fisheries and our significant protein source that require our full attention.
Scientists here have already established that sargassum acts as a natural fish attracting device. Juvenile dolphins and been flying fish have been found spawning in these floating patches of brown, presenting a boon for catches now and a bane for fish availability, sales and prices later.
Fishermen need to understand that while reaping vast qualities of juvenile fish there are interrupting the food chain, thereby contributing to the scarcity of other species such as dolphin fish and frying fish later in the season.
And then there’s the international issue; the fact that the largest and most powerful nations on Earth have dumped tons and tons of pollution into the sea, creating a virtual biological soup that promotes the growth of sargassum seaweed. This has no doubt been aided by higher-than-average seawater temperatures in the era of global climate change.
This year’s El Nino phenomenon and this year’s super heatwaves in the Atlantic will do little to help the situation. There have been reports that patches of seaweed the size of the entire island of Jamaica are floating in the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
So, yes, sargassum could save us all or be the end of it all.
It is therefore vital that our foreign policy takes into account sargassum as it would other environmental threats. The nations of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in the UN may now need to approach the richer countries with clear and incontrovertible evidence that requires financial and technical support to deal with this menace – or benefit.
The rich, industrialized nations need to understand how their nutrient-rich run-offs, with fertilizers and other chemicals, are contributing to the growth and development of this massive weed that chokes our island beaches and inlets.
Now is the time, therefore, for all friends of Barbados and the Caribbean to join in a concerted, coherent, cohesive, comprehensive battle against sargassum which meets the challenge to our survival and opens new vistas for growth and development.
It is a matter of perspective. And vision.