Statement
2 November 2015 - 1:00pm

STATEMENT BY DEPUTY PREMIER AND MINISTER FOR NATURAL RESOURCES AND LABOUR
DR. THE HONOURABLE KEDRICK D. PICKERING
AT THE FOURTH SITTING OF THE FIRST SESSION OF THE
THIRD HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2015
10:00 A.M.

“Sargassum Seaweed Phenomenon”

Madame Speaker, the issue of the influx of Sargassum seaweed being experienced throughout the Territory is a timely and important subject and one that the Government has been paying careful attention to. It is not often that an environmental issue makes it into the limelight or becomes the topic of dinner table conversation, but the Sargassum influx has given us all a very direct and much needed reminder of how much we depend on a healthy, well balanced environment for our quality of life.  The environment is our bedrock and so I think it appropriate that we join the conversation on Sargassum at the level of his Honourable House. 

Madame Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to address this House and the citizenry of this Territory on three (3) important matters regarding the influx of Sargassum seaweed.

  • Firstly, some basic facts about Sargassum seaweed and the current influx into The Virgin Islands.
  • Secondly, the challenges posed by the Sargassum seaweed while emphasizing some of the tangible benefits which are often lost in the public discourse and which must be factored heavily into our response.
  • Finally, the Government’s approach to responding to the situation.

On the first matter, while often called seaweed the two species of Sargassum washing up on our shores (Sargassum natans and Sargassum fluitans) are actually not a weed at all but are free floating macro algae that are never rooted to the seafloor in their lifecycle. Sargassum is a healthy, vibrant marine habitat that drifts with ocean currents and occasionally washes ashore in the process.

For centuries Caribbean shores have been periodically washed with small doses of Sargassum primarily from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean where it accumulates in mass. In recent times, however, there has been a shift; in 2011, 2014 and 2015 the entire Caribbean has experienced large scale landings of Sargassum.  The source of this influx is likely not the Sargasso Sea but massive blooms of Sargassum in a region of the Atlantic near the Equator known as the North Equatorial Recirculation Region. Compared to most Eastern Caribbean islands, The Virgin Islands has received relatively low levels of Sargassum as a result of these recent blooms. Additionally, given our geographic location, some coastline faces and beaches, particularly on the North, have not been impacted at a given time or impacted at all.

Madame Speaker, Scientists are still studying the specific causes of these blooms but they are likely linked to very warm ocean temperatures, higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the ocean and an increase in nutrients needed for Sargassum growth.  These increased nutrients are believed to be coming from multiple sources including large rivers in South America and more intense Sahara dust clouds.  The future likelihood and frequency of Sargassum blooms and mass landings is currently unknown.   

On the second matter, allow me to immediately dispel any notion of the Sargassum influx being nothing but a great plague. While it is causing some temporary impacts and inconveniences that can and must be managed, the Sargassum also brings with it a number of important benefits that must be fully appreciated and accounted for in our response. Sargassum is an important marine habitat. In fact, Sargassum rafts are classified as “essential fish habitat” providing a home and food source for at least 120 species of fish and even more species of invertebrates. Sargassum supports critical species such as sea turtles, tuna and mahi-mahi. We are already benefiting first hand from this critical fish habitat floating into our waters as we have seen an upsurge in landings of Mahi -Mahi at the Fishing Complex.

Once washed ashore Sargassum provides an important beach building function by helping to secure sand in place, contributing to the structure and stability of sand dunes and providing essential nutrients to coastal vegetation and beach inhabitants such as shorebirds and seabirds. Again, we are already witnessing this beach building action taking place at some of our beaches at amazing rates.

Madame Speaker, I cannot stress enough how important this is as many beaches in the Territory and across the Caribbean have been experiencing a net rate of erosion for decades. Beaches are the primary component of our tourism product and nobody builds them better than nature. Therefore, while the current presence of Sargassum may cause some inconveniences this tourism season, the Sargassum influx must also be managed as an asset that will ensure the integrity of our beaches and continue the well-being of the tourism sector in the years to come. Finally, once washed and dried, Sargassum can be converted into an excellent natural fertilizer to support our budding agricultural sector, backyard gardens and even commercial landscapes.

Recognising these important benefits, we must acknowledge that there are also some temporary impacts that result where Sargassum accumulates along the shore at a much faster rate than it is decomposed. These include:  

  • Foul odor, produced from the decay of very thick Sargassum mats which tend to decompose anaerobically (meaning without oxygen).  This results in the release of hydrogen sulfide gas which is known for its rotten egg like smell;
  • Disruption in beach use, an increasing concern as the tourism season approaches;
  • Fish kills in limited areas such as Handsome Bay where the decomposition process has depleted the oxygen supply causing fish to suffocate;
  • Foul odors in limited segments of the potable water supply, also related to dissolved hydrogen sulfide in intake water sourced from affected areas;
  • Potential blockage of the seawater intake at strategic locations throughout the Territory; and  
  • Potential disruption to navigation in some affected harbours.

Madame Speaker, I want to note that Sargassum itself is not toxic or poisonous. Human health concerns are limited to minor symptoms such as nausea, teary eyes and headaches that may be experienced from prolonged exposure to soluble hydrogen sulfide gas produced where thick mats of Sargassum are decomposing. Hydrogen sulfide is toxic by inhalation only at extremely high concentrations not achieved in an open shoreline/beach environment. Also I want to note that Sargassum in no way makes reef fish or other fish poisonous or unsafe for consumption.  

Finally, Madame Speaker, on the third matter let me assure this Honourable House and the citizenry of this Territory that the Government recognizes the challenges posed by Sargassum and is taking active, balanced steps to minimise these impacts while maximising benefits. The following immediate actions are being taken by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour through its Conservation and Fisheries Department as the lead agency, in collaboration with various other Government agencies, businesses and community organisations:

  1. Public education and sensitisation. As the tourism season is upon on, specific efforts, including a workshop, are being planned to provide the tourism sector in particular with practical information for action.
  2. Monitoring and surveillance of the coastline to determine the extent of Sargassum landings and areas for priority clean up
  3. Ongoing community-based cleanups through partnerships of community groups, the business community and Government. The first Territory wide cleanup was coordinated by the Conservation and Fisheries Department over the recent holiday weekend October 17-19, 2015 and was a resounding success. Through the efforts of many community groups and individuals, (such as the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Rotary and Rotaract Clubs, the Pilipino Society, Ms. Simone Monsanto and others), and businesses (Drake’s Traders, Clarence Thomas Ltd, Alfonso Warner Insurance, Trident Trust and others) who volunteered their time, labour and various resources we were able to remove over 1,000 bags of Sargassum from priority areas of our shoreline. The focus will continue to be on Sargassum removal by these types of efforts using hand tools/small machines as this results in the least impact to our beaches as much less sand is incidentally removed in the cleaning process compared to the use of heavy equipment which can accelerate beach erosion.
  4. Where absolutely necessary and appropriate, the Government is also coordinating cleanup efforts with the aid of heavy machinery. This has already happened for instance at Handsome Bay, Virgin Gorda.
  5. Production of fertilizer from collected Sargassum, currently being piloted by the Department of Agriculture.
  6. Development of a comprehensive policy and implementation strategy to address the current Sargassum influx and potential future influxes.

Madame Speaker these actions represent a science-based, balanced and sustainable approach to the Sargassum influx and reflect the types of actions being taken across the region. Allow me to stress that a sensible response to the Sargassum influx is not an attempt to completely rid the Territory of Sargassum. This is not only impractical and financially unfeasible but environmentally unsound as some level of Sargassum is a natural and important part of a healthy, balanced environment.

Any management response must recognise and balance (1) the benefits of allowing Sargassum accumulation (2) the natural decomposition processes and (3) the costs and potential environmental impacts of Sargassum removal. The uncertainty about how long the current influx will persist and the frequency of future influxes of this magnitude must also be weighed. The immediate goal of our management response is to limit Sargassum build up along priority shoreline and beach areas to a level where natural decomposition processes can break it down quickly enough to minimise the concerns already highlighted.  

Madame Speaker, I end by highlighting the fact that the response to the Sargassum situation cannot be seen as just a Government responsibility, but must be broadly viewed as a community effort. We must all see ourselves as stewards as the Good Book says. This is not simply an ideal but a necessity in this situation. Management of the Sargassum influx will require a continuous effort, tremendous man power and input of other resources. No Government, not this one, not those of our sister Caribbean islands or even that of our neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands has the internal resources do to it alone. The only way to rise to this challenge is through a true community response and partnership among the public, businesses and Government. 

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