A regional menace

Sargassum invasions have affected more places than the Cayman Islands. From health concerns in Martinique to reports of a national emergency in Barbados and an economic crisis in Mexico, we look at how tides of seaweed are reportedly impacting coastal communities across the length and breadth of the Caribbean Sea.

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1. Antigua

In Antigua, large invasions of seaweed forced the closure of one of the island’s most exclusive hotels.

The luxury all-inclusive resort, the St. James Club, shut down for three months last year after a reddish-brown mass of sargassum took up residence in the bay.

In tourism blogs and on travel forums, industry advocates have been quick to point out that the island has 365 beaches, many of which have remained sargassum free. There is a sense that the publicity around sargassum is almost as big an issue as the seaweed itself.

2. Barbados

The island of Barbados declared a national emergency in 2018 and called in the country’s armed forces to help deal with an unprecedented influx of sargassum. The farthest east of all the Caribbean islands, Barbados is the first hit by the mats of seaweed drifting west on Atlantic currents. It was the first to get hit in 2011 and the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of a wider problem heading towards the region. It has also emerged, through its University of West Indies campus, as a hub of research and innovation in handling the problem.

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3. Martinique and Guadeloupe

The French government has committed 10 million euros to investigating and protecting its islands in the Antilles from the impact of sargassum.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Christian Baptiste, the mayor of Saint-Anne in Guadeloupe, where a crèche was shut down in June over sanitation fears, according to a France 24 news report. A secondary school also closed for four days due to the bloom. More than 11,000 cases of acute sargassum toxicity were reported across the two islands in 2018 according to a report in medical journal, The Lancet.

4. Mexico

With more than 250 miles of windward coast, Mexico is potentially the biggest victim of the sargassum invasion. While most Caribbean islands can still maintain golden sand beaches on some coastlines, Mexico does not have that flexibility.

Travel Weekly reported drops in occupancy and hotel room rates across the Central American country as a result of sargassum influx. The government of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean coast declared a state of emergency to free up funds to deal with the influx earlier this year. It described the situation as an “imminent natural disaster”.

5. St. Lucia

Spectacular aerial images of sargassum spooling like an oil spill across Reduit Bay in the island’s main tourist area, were posted by news site, The Voice, earlier this year. And while the island shares the economic concerns of many of its regional neighbours, it is gaining more headlines for its innovative response.

A 25-year-old entrepreneur has developed a method of transforming the seaweed into organic fertiliser. Algas Organics began exporting the product in 2015 and has been highlighted as a ray of hope amid the sargassum-related gloom swamping the region.

6. Tobago

By far the smaller of the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago, the tropical paradise, known for its rainforests and white sandy beaches, has been hit hard by sargassum.

The island’s government reportedly spent approximately US$500,000 during one year to clear up the decaying seaweed. According to the Washington Post, officials on the island want to develop an early-warning system using satellites to predict the likely severity of what has become known as ‘sargassum season’ in late spring and early summer. Aerial images from this year showed birds walking across thick sargassum deposits.

7. Jamaica

Cayman’s closest neighbour appears to have survived relatively unscathed compared with others in the region. The Jamaica Gleaner reported some issues in St. Catherine and Portland but there have been no reports of prolonged impact in tourism zones on the north coast.

Even so, officials in Jamaica aim to be part of the regional solution. Edmund Bartlett, the island’s tourism minister, speaking at a conference on sargassum at the University of West Indies in Jamaica, said the Caribbean needed to get to grips with the sargassum threat quickly.

8. Belize

After several years of getting hit hard by sargassum, Belize is fighting back. The country’s government has set up a tax-relief programme to support properties severely affected by sargassum. The Belize Tourism Board has also offered more than $600,000 to support municipalities in beach clean-ups. Other initiatives include a Sargassum Task Force, duty exemption on machinery imports for clean-up, an awareness campaign, and sargassum forecasts released several times a week. At Ambergris Caye, authorities are experimenting with containment barriers designed to divert the seaweed away from the shore.

Kayla Young contributed to this story.

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