Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

It's back.

Sargassum seaweed is the unwelcome visitor that began washing up on beaches in parts of the Caribbean and Florida in late spring.

Sargassum made a brief appearance in the Caribbean in summer 2011 and had a massive comeback in the summer of 2015. Now, undulating rafts of the stinking slimy seaweed are turning Caribbean waters on some islands reddish-brown, swamping beaches and trapping sea turtles and marine life as it washes ashore on each tide.

In Barbados, the trickle actually started in January, but had ramped up dramatically by late May and early June.

The government declared a national emergency on June 7, after satellite observations warned of record-setting sargassum making its way to its shores on the east and south coasts, according the Barbados Government Information Service.

"This onslaught does pose a national emergency to our marine life, our beaches, our people and our fishing and tourism industries," said Kirk Humphrey, minister of maritime affairs.

"The government is doing what we can by raking the beaches daily, removing it, burying it, taking it to landfills, but more comes each day."

Humphrey said that researchers in Barbados are investigating the use of sargassum as a sustainable energy source and fertilizer.

Although no resorts on Barbados' south and east coasts of the island have closed to date, there is no ocean swimming due to the unattractive masses of seaweed choking the waters.

Sandals Barbados and the adjacent Sandals Royal Barbados on the south coast are offering guests an option for ocean swimming with a complimentary roundtrip transfer to the pristine beach at Carlisle Bay on the west coast, with towels, an umbrella, lounge chairs and lunch at the Boat Yard restaurant.

St. James's Club, an Elite Island Resort on Antigua's south coast, will temporarily close from July 15 to Sept. 30 due to the onslaught of sargassum. Guests will be relocated to Elite's three other resorts on the north and northwest coasts where the waters are clear and beaches pristine.

In the British Virgin Islands, sargassum is reportedly decomposing around the recently refurbished ferry terminal in Road Town, Tortola, creating a problem for ferry operators as well as a smelly nuisance for residents and visitors.

Sargassum has been around for hundreds of years. It "blooms" in the Sargasso Sea, a 2-million-square-mile body of warm water in the North Atlantic. The floating masses are carried by currents, winds and tides south into the Gulf of Mexico where it then heads toward the Caribbean, the Yucatan or up onto Florida beaches.

One theory holds that a change in the sea currents attributable to climate change has resulted in higher sea temperatures and increased amounts of carbon dioxide that enhance its growth.

It's not dangerous to humans, but it is unsightly and smells like rotten eggs when it dries out on shorelines and begins to rot, attracting flies and insects. The foul-smelling masses are heavy, hard to remove and can stand in piles as much as 10 feet high.

Other islands hard hit by the current invasion include Martinique's Atlantic coast and parts of Guadeloupe, St. Maarten/Martin, Tobago, Canouan in the Grenadines, Dominica and Puerto Rico. The French government already has earmarked more than $3.5 million for supplying tractors, gas masks and other equipment to remove the sargassum in Martinique, Guadeloupe and other French islands, according to an Agence France Presse report.

Although the sargassum usually dissipates by late September, for now it appears that the only option for any of the affected islands is to remove the muck daily and truck it off to a landfill.


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