We are impressed by the innovative plan to use drones to track the increasing amount of sargassum washing up on the territory’s shores.
However, the growing problem also needs a consistent cross-government response guided by a comprehensive national strategy designed to protect the territory’s population and economy from the seaweed’s damaging effects.
Sargassum, of course, is not a problem in itself: It is a natural aquatic plant that provides habitat for fish and other marine life. But in the past decade, it has plagued much of the Caribbean by washing ashore in unprecedented amounts.
Scientists blame global warming and other effects of climate change, and they believe the problem could get worse.
Across the tourism- and marine-dependent Caribbean, where populations tend to cluster near the coast, the issue has been widely recognised as an urgent crisis. Yet when sargassum begins to wash up on Virgin Islands shores, it often seems to catch the government flat-footed.
Frequently, the seaweed is left to rot along the shoreline, even in population centres and at the Road Town ferry terminal, a main arrival point for tourists and returning residents.
Its potent stench can quickly become a nightmare. On the water, it also causes various problems for boats.
The drones will be deployed as part of the regional Darwin Plus-funded Sustainable Sargassum Management Project led by the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute, a non-profit organisation based in Trinidad and Tobago. They will be used to map the extent of the problem, provide early alerts, and better identify problem areas, among other helpful tasks. This is a great idea.
But the information collected by the drones could go to waste if government does not have in place a proper response system for removing and processing the seaweed.
As much as possible, that system should be eco-friendly and include strategies for putting the sargassum to use. Elsewhere, for instance, entrepreneurs have seen some success experimenting with using it for fertiliser and biofuel. But such efforts require careful planning and close collaboration between the public and private sectors.
In 2015, then-Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering — the former minister of natural resources — promised a “comprehensive policy and implementation strategy” for tackling the sargassum problem. We have yet to see this strategy, but it sounds like a good start.
We hope it will be revived soon along with complementary efforts to respond consistently and effectively to the seaweed. That way, all the helpful information gathered by the drones can be put to optimal use and the territory can finally begin to properly address the longstanding sargassum problem before it gets worse.