Photo: SOS Carbon.
Sargassum is a brown macroalgae that has wreaked havoc on the Caribbean, decimating coastal ecosystems and threatening the tourism economy on which the region depends.
Although sargassum serves as a healthy ecosystem for marine species in the Sargasso Sea, its emigration towards the Caribbean—due to rising ocean temperatures and changes in currents and ocean pollution—leads to the suffocation of local ecosystems.
With its ability to double in size approximately every 11 days, sargassum has become a monster, absorbing nutrients and oxygen, choking coral reefs and local fish, and depriving coastal ecosystems of sunlight. The result: beaches riddled with mountains of piled-up sargassum that smells of rotten organic material and marine animals (akin to rotten eggs), a sea of silty sand and seemingly disappearing water, and a hue of brown and red sea invisibly releasing a cloud of carbon dioxide and methane back into our atmosphere.
Sargassum decimates the exact product on which this region depends: its beautiful beaches and landscapes. The tourism industry represents up to 70 percent of some Caribbean countries’ GPD.
An STR report released in May 2022, a leading global company focusing on analytics and data in the hospitality industry, showcases that in Barbados, hotels in regions affected by sargassum held a 6 percent deficit in occupancy compared to hotels in unaffected regions (pre-covid, 2018 data). Moreover, their Average Daily Rate (ADR) dropped by 1.4 percent. For a hotel with 500 rooms, an average USD $250 ADR, and a 66 percent occupancy, this equates to over $250,000 in monthly losses or about 10 percent of its monthly room/key revenues.
Based on these figures, Punta Cana’s hospitality sector, the primary tourist region in the Dominican Republic, could stand to lose well over $88 million in yearly revenues to this sargassum phenomenon.
The problem is only getting bigger. April 2022 broke record volumes of sargassum, totaling 14 million tons between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. As climate change erupts, so follows this phenomenon.
However, not all hope is lost. Inspired entrepreneurs and engineers are developing technologies to take on this challenge.
On the shores of Punta Cana Resort and Antigua, you will see artisanal boats operated by local fishermen, who have been trained to operate collection systems and understand the immensity of sargassum’s environmental and economic threat. This solution has provided formal employment to an otherwise informal sector, which was also heavily affected by these sargassum influxes (e.g., boat engines demolished by sargassum and fish dying off). A bonus of training local fishermen to collect sargassum is putting a dent in over-fishing practices across the Caribbean.
And so, the final piece of the puzzle remains. What do you do with the millions of tons of sargassum collected? After removal, sargassum often ends up in landfills (which prompts further questions on the effects of decaying sargassum on runoff and groundwater pollution).
Fortunately, new companies and initiatives are exploring ways to monetize sargassum harvesting via processing. Processing extends from the viable opportunities of creating organic fertilizer (an increasingly undersupplied sector), creating new bioplastic alternatives, extracting components for use in the cosmetic or medical industries, or meshing with other organic waste to produce biogas. These opportunities are exciting, and post-pandemic job creation could be a key incentive for Caribbean countries to support such initiatives. Yet, many fall short of the scale needed to tackle the scale of the problem. After all, we are speaking about millions of tons of sargassum.
Thus, it is enticing to look for other non-processing solutions. In the current reality of unstable climates, some have asked whether sargassum can have a larger global impact. SOS Carbon is a company that has set out to tackle this question. The company has developed a cost-efficient, patented method to sink sargassum at great depths (>1,000m). The objective is to sequester millions of tons of carbon and methane emissions, which would otherwise be released when sargassum makes landfall. Rather than allowing sargassum to reach shores, wreak havoc on Caribbean ecosystems and economies, and release harmful emissions into the atmosphere, why not look at its previous natural course—where it would sink to the bottom of the ocean—to avoid the problem altogether. If implemented on a large scale, such a solution could prevent a source of carbon emissions from the atmosphere, reduce the effects of a negative-feedback loop, and provide some much-needed global relief.
Andrés Bisonó is a ClimateTech entrepreneur working at the intersection of social impact and Climate Action. Andres holds a dual-major in Mechanical Engineering and Finance from Drexel University. As a current member of MIT Sloan School of Management, Andres’ goal is to transform society and the environment for a better tomorrow.
Christopher Walker has a history of leading businesses through global market expansion across diverse sectors. Christopher holds a dual-major in International Business and International Development from the University of New South Wales, and uses his background to help positive-impact, innovative, and sustainable companies reach their maximum potential.