Sargassum is spreading to beaches of the Dominican Republic that it hasn't before infested, coming in bigger numbers, and departing later. It is also reaching locations where it was previously uncommon to see it. Mitigation plans have been announced, albeit nothing is known about them yet, due to the direct impact they have on the tourism industry, one of the nation's economic cornerstones.
Since December 2020, efforts to address this issue, particularly in the country's eastern region, have included the announcement of the rescue of beaches and a public-private fund for around 11 million dollars. Brown algae known as sargassum started to reach the Caribbean coasts in 2011 and has since accumulated on the beaches and grown out of control.
Experts attribute several factors, including climate change, to the daily increase in the number of floating algae found along the shores. In certain situations, when this alga is not promptly removed, it can decompose and release an unpleasant odor that scares away visitors. The sargassum is coming in earlier and departing later, which is bad news.
Sargassum is now spreading to parts of the island that were previously unaffected, including the north shore of Samaná, Ro San Juan, and Puerto Plata, as a result of a change in ocean currents. The arrival of more and more sargassum is the other negative news. The sargassum comes from the Bermuda Triangle's sea of sargassum, which was previously fed by fertilizers, chemicals, and the fertilizer- and nutrient-rich Congo current.
The sargasso sea was described by Christopher Columbus as he arrived in the Americas. Sargasso is an ancient phenomenon.
Global warming, rising temperatures, and Amazonian forest destruction are some of the theories regarding what has promoted the spread of this floating algae. Lands that were once forested now require fertilizers and nutrients that are added to the soil, drain, and flow to rivers, where they then flow to the sea. This has caused a fresh sea of sargasso to emerge between South America and Africa.
How does the sargassum affect
Sargassum offers advantages. It benefits ocean life to some extent and provides food for tiny fish. The issue is that because of the enormous arrival, it builds up on the beaches and in the wetlands and causes harm. Because the sargassum is no longer in its natural environment, it starts to deteriorate and produce acid leachate, which pollutes and is handled similarly to other solid trash.
Sargassum also has the effect of reducing oxygen levels, which influences marine animals and coastal ecosystems. Sargassum is considered solid waste since there is no effective mechanism for collecting it, which is one of the main issues. The fishing industry is also affected, in addition to the tourism industry.
What is being done?
The Ministry of Environment, Public Health, Tourism, Public Works, Universities, the Association of Hotels and Tourism (Asonahores), and other private sector organizations will organize an inter-institutional table to discuss the sargassum issue. Because each institution operates independently, this table aims to coordinate efforts. The sargasso problem is a persistent issue.
As part of an agreement between the Ministry of Tourism and Asonahores, President of the Republic Luis Abinader presented a strategy for the mitigation of these brown algae in December 2020. The Dominican Republic's government announced the establishment of a US$ 11.8 million fund for the control of sargassum on its shores, with the first donation of 156 million pesos going toward the installation of barriers.
The funds would be used to pay for the service of providing and installing 31, 524 linear meters of anti-sargasso barriers on the beach lines of the areas of Punta Cana, Bávaro, Cabeza de Toro, Arena Blanca, and Uvero Alto, even though the progress of this agreement has not yet been disclosed. The duration of the sargassum is unknown, but the country has taken precautions, particularly in the business sector of tourism.
A system of barriers was built by the Punta Cana Group's founding, and as a result, some of the beaches now have some level of protection. However, because of the high expense, not all beaches have this protection. Because freshwater and marine organisms must be permitted to cross, these ecological barriers cannot go all the way to the bottom; instead, they must leave a meter. There are two types in the area, one created by the Punta Cana Group and the other by AlgeaNova, thus the effect is not 100%. There are now 7 kilometers of barriers in Punta Cana.
Sargassum barriers are not enough
The barriers need continual upkeep and a reliable technique for collecting the seaweed, even if they successfully keep the majority of sargassum from reaching the shores. The issue is that because the sargassum spews leachates that seep into the stratum and contaminate the water, it cannot be dumped anyplace. The nets can endure it, but another issue is that frequently they stay on islands and cover the corals.
The greatest option is to develop a system of collection in the open sea because, once it reaches the coast, it starts to degrade, smells unpleasant, depletes oxygen, and kills a lot of fish. Sargassum can be collected using model boats provided by AlgeaNova and SOSCarbon, two different businesses.
It is vital to pay attention to public beaches and fishing areas in addition to the hotel zone. It is unaffordable, but it is vital to give priority to the economic zones, and other zones, to establish plans for unforeseen events and adaptability to safeguard them.
One suggestion is to hire fishermen to harvest the sargassum manually and remove it from between the meshes. One issue is that there is unauthorized collecting, which damages the beaches by utilizing trucks, skids, or backhoes. For these goals, it is crucial to include the municipalities and authorities of each coastal province.
Is everything bad about sargassum?
Brown algae known as sargassum is a valuable biomass with a high nutritional content that has potential applications in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. This alga can be used for a variety of purposes, including agriculture, building, and electricity. Students from Intec and other universities across the nation are developing various sargassum-based applications.
However, they are already studies for the formation of organic fertilizers, and food for cattle due to their protein content, so caution is still advised because they are metal accumulators in their displacement. In terms of construction, it can be used to make bricks and blocks. It can also be used to purify water as activated carbon.
Because the situation does not get better every year, the sargasso problem can be used as an opportunity, and the key to success is a partnership between the government, businesses, and academic institutions. Sargassum can be used as a starting point for small firms that produce new goods.
There are three key areas where we can begin to control the sargassum problem and where more focus is needed: monitoring and anticipating the massive arrival to know where and when it will arrive; enhancing the retention and collection system; and assessing and putting into practice the various uses of sargassum.
Presently, Intec students are constructing a nanosatellite to track the sargassum using independent techniques. Sargassum will go from a waste product to a raw material if uses can be identified for it.
A pilot project to generate energy with sargassum at home
Two young Dominicans are seeking support to develop a pilot project and install an innovative electric generator that uses sargassum as raw material and will impact 20 families living in the coastal area of Bávaro-Punta Cana.
This electric generator, which consists of a machine or biodigester that can produce electricity and biogas with sargasso, was designed by 18-year-old Génesis Jiménez Suárez. Her product has already been tested and won second place in the Appropriate Technology Awards of the National Industrial Property Office (Onapi), with the support of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO).
This biodigester uses existing technology and adapts it to make it easier and cheaper to treat sargassum. Such a biodigester costs between RD$12,000 and RD$25,000 and is designed with tools and utensils within everyone's reach. He affirmed that for this reason, it is an ideal tool for the families of coastal zones, and also an industrial design can be made for hotels.
Sargassum is put through a pre-treatment (in a chamber with high pressure and controlled high temperature) to make it more powerful and get more biomethane. This makes it possible to make more energy.
Emmanuel Henríquez, 20 years old, who also participates with Jiménez in the project, emphasized that with this biodigester, for each kilogram of sargassum used, 116 liters of biomethane can be created to generate electricity or gas for the stove.
They emphasized that this project can be massified in coastal areas, including communities, hotels, and companies that are today very affected by sargassum. It is also ideal for using organic waste in the biodigester.