The Sargassum Information Hub: A collaborative approach to a common problem
23 May 2023
23 May 2023
Lying in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Sargasso Sea is unlike any other sea. The currents that bound it create a gyre. Within its centre lies what Dr Sylvia Earle called “a golden floating forest,” formed from a floating brown Sargassum seaweed. It is a unique and thriving system for myriad marine animals.
Sargassum can make its way out of the gyre, drifting into the Caribbean. “Sargassum used to come in little patches,” says Shelly-Ann Cox, a Sargassum expert who manages the GEO Blue Planet Sargassum Information Hub. For fishers, like those in Barbados who target flyingfish, these small patches “were a good sign…the flyingfish would spawn on the patches,” Cox explains. However, since 2011, those small patches have become sprawling mats. These influxes are coming from a new source, “Now every year is getting worse and worse and worse,” says Cox.
Research into the mechanisms behind Sargassum’s explosion is ongoing. Regardless, the sprawling mats are causing no end of trouble. At high density, Sargassum blocks out sunlight to everything below. Air-breathing animals like sea turtles, often attracted to Sargassum, cannot access the surface. When the Sargassum begins to decompose, it sucks up oxygen and releases toxins, creating a deadly cocktail, particularly if it reaches coastal waters.
Rather than benefiting from the influx of Sargassum, Barbados’s flyingfish fishery has suffered dramatic decreases in landings. “Flying fish is our national dish. It’s on our dollar coin. It’s on our passport. It’s such a national icon, so [the loss of flyingfish] might be a threat to national and cultural identity,” explains Cox.
The fisherfolk of Barbados aren’t the only ones to suffer from the onslaught of Sargassum. “The impacts are multisectoral. Puerto Rico had a power outage, and St. Croix, Virgin Islands, had water shortages because Sargassum got into their intake pipes. Tourism is impacted…we’ve seen beaches where [Sargassum] has been piled up higher than six feet (1.8 metres),” Cox explains, adding that Sargassum mats are now becoming more frequent in countries outside of the Caribbean, such as Mexico, the USA, and even those along Africa’s western coastline.
“The impact on the economy is direct and big, so countries do see the importance of mitigating Sargassum,” says Audrey Hasson, Director of GEO Blue Planet’s European Office. By acting as a centralised information point, the Sargassum Information Hub, launched in June 2021, is helping countries do exactly that.
“We created this Hub to be the point of access for all information on Sargassum for all countries,” says Hasson. “The [Sargassum] problem is so big, so we’re trying to federate a community.”
The Hub provides key resources such as a research information repository, events and news pages, and a project directory for organisations and groups working on Sargassum to share their work with others working on or impacted by Sargassum. It also shares earth observation monitoring data.
Within the Caribbean, territories such as Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe fall under the jurisdiction of larger countries such as the USA and France, respectively. “The US and Europe have grid systems for monitoring and predicting Sargassum, but most countries in the area don’t,” explains Hasson. “We want to make sure what is done in the US and Europe[ean territories] is useful for everyone.” The Hub uses open satellite and in-situ data to provide the Sargassum viewer and forecasting systems as well as create bulletins and reports for governments, regional municipalities, businesses, and others to plan for and adapt to emerging Sargassum mats.
Cox describes the Hub as a living, ever-evolving entity, adapting to the needs of the countries impacted by Sargassum. Most recently, the Hub introduced regional pages containing specific information about what different countries are doing or facing. “For instance, if a country has a management plan or adaptive strategy, valorisation initiatives, hazard and vulnerability assessments, we include those on the page,” says Cox, noting that these pages have already become case studies for others looking to mitigate or valorise Sargassum.
Both Hasson and Cox have many ideas for the future of the Hub. One element Hasson points to relates to monitoring and forecasting. On the Hub, “we mostly have weekly reports and bulletins on short timescales,” says Hasson, noting that French research teams are working on creating seasonal to interannual forecasts. “We would like to see this become operational, and on the Hub,” says Hasson. In addition, climatologies, which show historic Sargassum patterns, would be a useful addition, especially by businesses who are trying to develop Sargassum activities, as they would need to know statistically how much Sargassum has been coming to their harvesting areas,” Hasson explains.
Cox points to several potential developments, including dashboards that provide more specific information on the impacts of Sargassum and clean-up costs and a forum to help enhance collaboration. “Information is powerful beyond anything,” says Cox. “Centralising all the information so all the different countries can learn from each other, this is really the benefit of having the Hub.”