October 27, 2014

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Massive amounts of pelagic sargassum has been washing up on Caribbean beaches for the past few months. According to Mission Blue friend Martha Gilkes of Antigua, the seaweed drifts are getting as high as 3 to 4 feet on some beaches. Unfortunately for local human populations, the sargassum is smelly and choking some of the ecotourism to the area. Tragically for baby sea turtle hatchlings, their journey into the open sea is being hampered by the collected sargassum and some are not making it. Heroic environmentalists like Mrs. Gilkes have taken the opportunity to comb the beaches in the morning and help rescue these helpless baby turtles.

In correspondence to Mrs. Gilkes, Dr. Earle recently remarked, “I greatly appreciate your updates on the phenomenal amount of Sargassum that has been coming your way — and sympathize with the grief it is causing Antigua residents. Geologically speaking, this has likely happened many times before humans were around to witness the occasional beached avalanche of seaweed and the cornucopia of creatures that suddenly are without an ocean below…

Concerning the baby turtles, if they can be rescued from the beached Sargassum, the best place to turn them loose is likely to be in a mass of Sargassum that is in the open sea. In open water, they are vulnerable to consumption by numerous animals, but within the floating Sargassum, they have food and shelter. Young turtles, tunas, jacks, and numerous others rely on those grand floating islands of life.”

Photo Credit: E. Doyle

Sargassum is a brown seaweed that grows to several meters and can float in the open ocean, playing host to myriad marine lifeforms who depend on the seaweed for their existence. The Sargasso Sea — a Mission Blue Hope Spot — is a massive collection of sargassum in the open Atlantic Ocean hemmed in by the North Atlantic Gyre. The region plays a critical role in both eel and loggerhead migration patterns and life cycles. Christopher Columbus noted the presence of sargassum in the Sargasso Sea as he voyaged to the New World. Dr. Earle calls it the “floating rainforest of the ocean”.

The Sargasso Sea Alliance, a Mission Blue partner, has been actively working to conserve this unique marine ecosystem, and most recently had a big win with the “Hamilton Declaration on Collaboration for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea”. This non-binding political statement indicates signatories’ interest in voluntarily collaborating on efforts to conserve the Sargasso Sea. It was signed by the governments of Bermuda, the Azores, Monaco, United Kingdom and the United States.

While sargassum is creating a headache for many in the Caribbean today, it’s also important to remember the integral role it plays in marine ecology on the high seas in the Northern Atlantic. For more information, head to the Sargasso Sea Alliance’s webpage. As the only sea without a land border, the Sargasso is unique to the whole of the Ocean and well worth exploring.

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"With knowing comes caring." - Dr. Sylvia Earle