To help address the increasing amounts of sargassum washing up on the territory’s shores, public officers are learning to use drones to monitor and report deposits of the seaweed in real-time.
“Traditionally, we used to get little bits of [sargassum] for a few months each year, but since 2018 we’ve been getting large amounts across the entire Caribbean,” said Dr. Kimberly Baldwin, director of the Barbados-based consultancy Marine Spatial Information Solutions. “There’s many scientists looking at the reasons why, but climate change seems to be the main reason why we’re getting more of this seaweed.”
Now, countries and territories across the region are devising innovative ways to manage the issue, Dr. Baldwin said last Monday morning during the opening meeting for a one-week workshop focused on drone technology.
The workshop is part of the regional Sustainable Sargassum Management Project led by the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute, a non-profit technical institute based in Trinidad and Tobago.
That project — which is funded by the United Kingdom government-sponsored Darwin Plus initiative — focuses on implementing multi-level approaches to manage sargassum influxes to protect and enhance coastal and marine biodiversity.
In the VI
Dr. Baldwin has already hosted workshops in Anguilla and Montserrat, and her last stop is the VI, where she is teaching stakeholders and public officers how to use drone technology and other platforms to research, monitor and alert others about sargassum influxes.
During a press briefing last Monday morning, she met with Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour acting Deputy Secretary Mervin Hastings, who told reporters that the ministry aims to address the sargassum issue for the long term.
“What we know is that sargassum is not going away, so it’s now our new problem,” Mr. Hastings said during the briefing.
Participants of this week’s workshop include officers from the MNRL, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Town and Country Planning Department, H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands, and the non-profit Association of Reef Keepers.
Sargassum is a genus of brown seaweed that floats in masses and doesn’t attach to the seafloor, according to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mats of it can stretch for miles across the ocean, providing food, refuge and breeding ground for marine animals including fish, sea turtles, birds, crabs, shrimp and more.
When the seaweed loses buoyancy and floats down to the seafloor, it provides carbon to fish and invertebrates in the deep sea. The Sargasso Sea, located near Bermuda in the Atlantic Ocean, is named for a vast patch of sargassum, and it’s where most of the VI’s sargassum originated in the past, Mr. Hastings explained. But in recent years, new ocean gyres have been forming off the coasts of Africa and South America.
According to Mr. Hastings, nutrients from the Orinoco River in South America along with rising ocean temperatures are contributing to the formation of these new gyres, and a lot more sargassum is floating toward the Caribbean from these regions.
The seaweed has brought devastating impacts to eastern Caribbean nations, where it is impacting tourism products, sea turtle nesting, and marine transportation.
In Barbados, where Dr. Baldwin is based, sargassum can pile up to 12 feet high on the beaches, she said.
Dr. Baldwin and her team are currently using drones to map seaweed deposits in Barbados.
“In order to deal with sargassum seaweed, we need to understand how much is on a beach so that we understand how many boats we need to either clear it away or how many tractors we need to clean it off the beach,” she explained.
The drone technology will allow users to take photos of sargassum buildups and upload those photos to a database. Additional software will automatically map out the photos, allowing public officers to monitor sargassum in real-time.
“This week is just a one-week bootcamp to train [officers] how to fly drones safely and how to use the drones for the mapping software,” Dr. Baldwin said. “But [for] the next component of this project, I’ll be working with these teams over a six-month period, coaching them virtually and continuing their training.”
Once information about growing sargassum piles is readily available, cleaning up the seaweed will also be easier.
Using tractors or other heavy equipment on the beach can have negative effects, like causing erosion and disrupting wildlife. That’s why government cleanups in the VI typically just involve hand rakes, Mr. Hastings said, adding that cleaning efforts have been underway in the territory for years.
Although Mr. Hastings has encouraged people to use the seaweed in efficient ways, he said he doesn’t know of any VI entrepreneurs who are currently converting sargassum into products.
One person applied for a trade licence a few months ago to use sargassum as biofuel, he said, adding that he hasn’t heard any updates since then. In other countries and territories, however, people are using sargassum in innovative ways.
“The University of the West Indies has been working with entrepreneurs around the world and markets around the world to use sargassum for biofuel and fertiliser,” Dr. Baldwin said. “Some people are using it for face creams, and other people in Mexico are using it to create disposable plates.”
Such endeavours often require collecting sargassum within six hours after it washes ashore, she added.
“Most of these people need sargassum when it’s fresh, not when it’s old and crispy and dried up,” Dr. Baldwin said. “So it’s a time-sensitive issue, which is where drones really come into play.”
She added that she hopes her training and research in the VI and other territories will serve a larger purpose in recycling sargassum for better uses.
“That’s another arm of the project,” she said. “In order to attract those international markets to invest in the Caribbean and start to use this product, we need to know how much do we have? How much do we have on which beaches and where across the Caribbean?
“We need to better understand across the Caribbean how much is coming in and where it is coming from, so that we can develop these markets and use the sargassum for positive purposes.”