Over the past month or so, St Lucia’s East Coast has been covered with seaweed of varying colour. The Department of Fisheries and the National Emergency Management Organisation have made attempts to educate the public on what appeared to be an unusual occurrence but we received a number of letters and emails about how much of the nuisance the seaweed was becoming.
The free-floating masses on the island’s coast are called Sargassum seaweed and are usually found in large mats throughout the South Atlantic region. Originating from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean, the waves break the plants apart. The parts multiply, get swept up in the sea currents and get carried off to the Gulf of Mexico where the environment fosters their rapid growth. The seaweed is carried along the currents and on an annual basis, we in the Caribbean experience this natural phenomenon.
As with everything else, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with Sargassum seaweed. The seaweed provides an eco-friendly environment for micro-organisms which contributes to the circle of life. Larger marine life, and even birds, follow the seaweed to feed off of the organisms. This provides a great opportunity for fishers to land large volumes of fish. Another benefit of this seaweed is that as the waves wash the seaweed to shore, it piles up along the coastline, holding the sand dunes in place long enough to allow other plants to take root and reduce soil erosion.
However, the seaweed’s ability to grow on the water’s surface poses a number of problems to boaters by entangling in its propellers; to swimmers who have to endure discomfort; to some marine species by inhibiting sunlight and also by bringing invasive animal and plant species into our eco-system.
This reporter travelled to the Vieux Fort Fisheries Complex and spoke with Hardin Jn Pierre, the Fisheries Extension Officer for Vieux Fort and Laborie. Pierre confirmed that the Fisheries Department did go out to get first hand information when the seaweed first entered St Lucian waters. He interacts with the fishers from Vieux Fort and Laborie on a regular basis and the biggest concern for the past few weeks has been among pot fishers.
Said Jn Pierre: “It is presently the pot fishing season which coincides with the pelagic season which is for migratory species like dolphins which is in June and December/January. The pot fishers noticed lots of seaweed entering into the fish pots and it reduces the catch to some extent because the seaweed sinks into the pot and blocks the entrance. It also makes it difficult to haul the pot. Additionally, it makes it difficult to find the pots because the markers are covered by the seaweed. They noticed recently the seaweed has begun to decompose so the catch is improving.”
In the early weeks, the large volume of seaweed appeared to be subsiding but that wasn’t the case as it appeared the Sargassum returned in its numbers and washed up along the coastline. Jn Pierre reported that there has not been much of a disruption in the Vieux Fort fishing port. He said, “A few weeks ago there was a huge increase in the catch of dolphin fish because they follow the seaweed and eat a lot of the small organisms in it. But while fishing, some of the guys went too close to the seaweed and it got caught in their boats and had to be pulled into port.”
He assessed, “The Caribbean side [of the island] has not had a seaweed problem per se, it is more on the Atlantic side like Praslin, Dennery, Micoud. There is a pungent odor because the seaweed causes the water to be stagnant but it has improved because of the rough sea conditions—it helps to keep it [the seaweed] moving.”
Jn Pierre went on to reveal that earlier in the season, Dennery had a serious problem with the seaweed because it blanketed the entire port, causing some of the fishermen to have to tow their boats out to sea before starting their engines.
He advised that we take a trip to Micoud to see for ourselves the effects of the seaweed. On arrival in Micoud, you couldn’t miss the stench. We walked towards the fishing boats in awe. There was hardly any sand visible. Thick hues of seaweed matted the entire shore and extended a few feet into the sea.
Though fish and lobster were being sold, there were mixed feelings regarding the effects of the seaweed on the catch. Some fishermen believed it really didn’t affect their catch while others praised the seaweed for giving them more than they would have normally caught and the rest cursed the seaweed and is anxious for “normal” days to return.
We spotted some fishermen in a boat trying to disentangle seaweed from the pirogue’s propeller. A man, who was in front of us, left the grassy area and headed towards what used to be the shore. The man walked on what appeared to be level ground and then in an instant, from his knee down disappeared into the auburn mat.
Jn Pierre’s words immediately came to mind. He had told the STAR earlier, “I’ve seen seaweed already but I’ve never seen it so thick or so in such large amounts. It is close to 100 meters in length and some feet in width.
I don’t know what happened this year. It is a natural phenomenon.
“We usually get them in clumps but for some reason this year, I don’t know. We’ve had some unusual sea currents this year and I really don’t know if it had anything to do with the seaweed we are experiencing.”
Fishermen in Dennery and Micoud agree they could do without the odor emanating from the seaweed. The fishermen on the west coast are frustrated with the predicament the seaweed has brought and are worried about the remnants on shore.
One Micoud fisherman intimated, “It’s like
there was a landslide under the sea! What are we supposed to do with all the seaweed in our village?”