FOR almost 10 years, the Caribbean region has been experiencing massive influxes of the sargassum seaweed which negatively impacts key social and economic sectors such as fisheries and tourism. The University of the West Indies (The UWI) in its strategic mission to develop a culture of resilience planning for the Caribbean, has invested significant resources over the years in tackling the sargassum challenge. In its most recent initiatives, last month, The UWI, through its new Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre (GTRCM) led a forum to facilitate collaboration, knowledge sharing and best practices to tackle the threat with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and also held discussions with the United Nations (UN).
The forum held on Friday, July 26, specifically addressed the type of sargassum which originates from the coast of Brazil. Outcomes from the discussions identified gaps and initiatives to foster synergies towards a solution. Presentations were made by Professor Mona Webber, Director of The UWI’s Centre for Marine Sciences and Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory; Andres Bisono Leon and Luke Grey from MIT; Precision Engineering Research Group; and Marion Sutton, Oceanographer and Project Manager from Collecte Localisation Satellites in France.
Discussions with the UN were held on July 30. The UN team, represented by the Head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office of the United Nations Environment Programme and the Sub-Regional Coordinator for the Caribbean of the Food & Agriculture Organisation, agreed to collaborate in a number of areas to manage the scourge of the sargassum seaweed impact. The meeting led to agreement to focus on improving monitoring to predict sargassum landing and development of monitoring system available via a mobile app, which would allow the general public, including affected groups such as fisher folk, to be able to better prepare for any landings of this seaweed.
Commenting on the various initiatives, The UWI’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Graduate Studies and Research, Professor, Stephan Gift said, “Our regional University has been and continues to be actively involved in sargassum research and is committed to collaborate with international institutions on this issue.”
Across its campuses, The UWI has been at the forefront of investigating, applying science and technology to address problems and take advantage of opportunities related to sargassum. In 2015 and 2018, the Cave Hill campus hosted two regional sargassum symposia, which brought together scientists, members of the public and private sectors along with stakeholders across the fishing and tourism industries. Following these meetings, extensive applied research projects and development programmes have been ongoing with regional and international partners. Some of these include sea turtle conservation, management plans and removal, practical guides for fishermen, early warning and tracking of the sargassum, as well as turning it into useful products such as fuel.
At St Augustine, researchers have been investigating the commercialization of novel substances derived from sargassum seaweed for sustainable agriculture and pesticide reduction. So far, the findings from its use have indicated significant decrease in plant disease and marked increase in crop yield. Another major investigative project involves the application of an extract from sargassum as a biodegradeable alternative in the reduction of solid waste as well as for the treatment of polluted water for domestic use.
In addition to the recent collaboration in Jamaica through the GTRCM, researchers at the Mona campus established a ‘Sargassum Group’ to explore the commercial uses of the seaweed. This has led to experiments involving its use as compost fertilizers for agricultural crops and mangrove seedlings and as an extract on breast cancer cell lines and antimicrobial applications. As the work of this group continues, it will join forces with the Centre to research and monitor risks associated with sargassum and tourism resilience and crisis management.
The issue of saragassum is also expected to be featured during the Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre’s upcoming Summit of the Americas carded for October 9-10, 2019 at the Mona campus. The Summit themed, Tourism Resilience for Sustainable Developments is aimed at further examining and showcasing the experience, best practices, and lessons learnt from tourism climatic resilience initiatives around the world.