Invasive Species or Revolutionary Energy Source?

FAU Research Professor Discusses Research on Sargassum

By Connor Markey, Co-Editor-in-Chief

This past summer, Florida was faced with an ecological crisis as millions of pounds of seaweed began to wash up on its shores. In turn, many began looking to science to better understand the reasons and impact of this rare phenomenon.

The culprit responsible for wreaking havoc on shorelines across Florida and the Caribbean was Sargassum, a Brown Macro-algae. Fortunately, since its arrival, it has all but disappeared from Florida’s shoreline.

Dr. Brian Lapointe, Principal Investigator of Ecology and Water Quality at Florida Atlantic University, has made it his life’s mission to research the environmental impact and potential uses of Sargassum.

“This thing started growing throughout January, February and March, and it was getting bigger and bigger,” said Lapointe when talking with iPulse about the Great Atlantic Sargassum Patch, an algal bloom now recognized as the largest in the world.

“Normally every other year, it peaks in June or July, so we were all assuming it would just continue to grow, but this year has been a very different year. We’ve had these very strong westerly winds as a result of El Niño. So…that westerly wind actually moved that Sargassum out of the Caribbean back towards the east and the northeast, so it has affected Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominican Republic, those islands, but not so much Mexico and Florida.”

When Sargassum washes ashore, the piles that begin to rot can emit a wide variety of harmful gasses. This can range from odoriferous gasses to toxic fumes, which can cause respiratory issues. This has become increasingly concerning as the Great Atlantic Patch, which first appeared in 2011, continues to grow in size.

In spite of these concerns, Sargassum has proven to be quite beneficial when used as the feedstock for biofuel or fertilizer.

“The vision was that we could potentially have large areas where we could grow Sargassum, where we wouldn’t compete with land for food and fiber production, for the growing world population,” said Lapointe. “We could basically convert sun energy, light, into organic matter that could be digested, like anaerobic digestion in a biofuel.”

“What’s interesting about sargassum particularly—it has not just nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and carbon and micronutrients but also hormones.”

In addition to being a potential source of biofuel and fertilizer, Sargassum provides a habitat for 127 of marine species, many being endemic to the Sargasso Sea, a region of the North Atlantic Ocean covered in several million tons of the floating seaweed. Along with an array of fish and invertebrates, Sargassum provides a nursery for sea turtles, eels, and other endangered species, in addition to being a food source for migratory birds and commercial fish.

For these reasons, Sargassum was given similar protections to coral reefs by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the 1990s. Sargassum was given even further protection in 2014 after five countries: The Azores, Bermuda, Mexico, the UK, and the US signed the Hamilton Declaration on Collaboration for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea. This Declaration authorized the government of Bermuda to act as a “steward” of the Sargasso Sea. Since then, five more countries have added their signature to the declaration. The British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, and Canada in 2016, followed by the Cayman Islands in 2017, and the Dominican Republic in 2018.

Above: Dr. Brian LaPointe holding a pinch of sargassum. Photo/Florida Atlantic University.
Above: Sargassum washed ashore on a Boca Raton beach. Photo/C. Markey.

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