Sargassum on the remote McCartney Cay in the Turks and Caicos
August 2022 Update:
The Turks and Caicos is experiencing mid to high levels of sargassum at this time. Beaches sheltered from the typical eastern breeze, including Grace Bay, Leeward Beach, Sapodilla Bay, Taylor Bay, and the Bight Beach remain largely free of sargassum. Coasts exposed to the breeze, such as Long Bay Beach and Five Cays Beach can have accumulations that range from mild to heavy. Occasionally, abnormal northern winds may deposit small amounts of seaweed on Grace Bay and other sheltered beaches.
Sargassum is a yellow, reddish, or brown seaweed that washes up on some beaches. In recent years, sargassum has made headlines due to its impact and accumulation on beaches in the Caribbean, Lucayan Archipelago, Antilles, and Florida. Some island destinations, such as Barbados, have experienced huge influxes of the seaweed.
Most beaches in the Turks and Caicos are free of sargassum, notably the world-famous Grace Bay.
Sargassum is considered a macroalgae, and the species that plagues some popular beaches in the Caribbean is little different from the typical seaweed that grows on the ocean floor and reefs in that it’s holopelagic, with its entire life cycle occurring while floating in the open ocean. Small berry-like air bladders keep the algae buoyant.
Sargassum doesn’t pose and health risks to humans excepting the extreme cases where tremendous decaying masses produce fumes with sulfur compounds which in rare cases can incite respiratory issues.
The Turk and Caicos fortunately doesn’t see the extraordinary accumulations, and the algae here is only unsightly, with some unpleasant odors when in higher concentrations.
Much of the sargassum in the tropical Atlantic originates from the Sargasso Sea, which is an area in the mid-Atlantic centered between four major ocean currents. The revolving ocean currents create a gyre, which holds sargassum, flotsam, and jetsam.
It’s thought that warmer ocean water temperatures and runoff from global agriculture fertilizer use may have caused the algae blooms in recent years.
Sargassum Is Seasonal
It’s important to be aware that sargassum is largely seasonal, and is most apparent during the later summer months.
Geography largely determines if sargassum accumulates or not. Sargassum can collect on windward coasts in the Turks and Caicos, such as on much of South Caicos, Grand Turk, the eastern side of North Caicos, and the Ambergris Cays. Due to it hosting the majority of cruise ship guests, the Cruise Center Beach on Grand Turk is one of only a few beaches in the country where sargassum may have an effect on tourism.
The Turks and Caicos has hundreds of beaches, and windward coasts where flotsam collects will often have at least some sargassum.
An extreme case of sargassum in a remote estuary in the Turks and Caicos.
Sargassum can definitely impact the local environment, in ways deemed both good and bad. It’s important to understand that nature is constantly changing, and such change can especially be rapid in a sandy coastal environment such as the Turks and Caicos. Just because something is unsightly, doesn’t mean it’s not natural.
Algae and sargassum blooms do happen in nature for countless reasons. Sargassum drifts have been recorded in the Americas by early European explorers since Columbus.
Under normal weather conditions and in moderate quantities, sargassum can help beach growth as it traps sand and encourages beach accretion.
Sargassum can dye the water shades of yellow and brown.
In one of the extreme cases of sargassum accumulation in the Turks and Caicos took place in the channels that separate the small cays between South Caicos and East Caicos. The northern-most of the channels tends to get the worst of sargassum in the country, and can be completely choked with the algae.
Eutrophication, which refers to nutrient enrichment of water that leads to excessive marine vegetation growth, the subsequent de-oxygenation of water, and resulting in loss of the larger organisms, can be a serious side effect of sargassum in the smaller waterways.
There are concerns that eutrophication could be an issue in rare cases at a few specific wetland locations in the Turks and Caicos.
Sargassum Removal and Beach Cleaning
As is often the case, having the right tool for the job greatly increases productivity.
In most cases, a lightweight utility tractor with a beach rake implement is the best equipment for removing sargassum from the beach. A few resorts in the Turks and Caicos have such equipment, and rake the beach as conditions dictate.
When abnormal weather causes sargassum build up on coasts that normally don’t experience accumulation, the algae is typically raked and gathered by hand.
Hurricanes and tropical depressions often act as a flush for waterways and coasts, as the winds and storm surge greatly increases water flow the channels and inlets.
Heavy equipment such as backhoes and skids steers are usually the incorrect equipment for cleaning sargassum, and can cause additional beach damage.