Sargassum Seaweed 101June 23, 2023
If you’ve been on vacation recently in Florida, Mexico, or the Caribbean or are lucky enough to live there year round, perhaps you’ve seen the orangey-brown seaweed that has been washing up on beaches in mass amounts. That, my friend, is sargassum seaweed.
If you’re curious about what sargassum is, why it’s harmful, and how it can be used for good, we encourage you to stick around and find out.
What is Sargassum Seaweed?
Sargassum is a species of seaweed (algae) that floats on the surface of the ocean. This pelagic species grows offshore and is typically found in warmer climates. It is made up of many leaves, appendages, and “berries” that are filled with oxygen to make it float. Sargassum gets pushed by the currents and will often cluster together into islands of floating seaweed. When these islands float around on the ocean’s surface, they soak up carbon dioxide to protect the environment they’re living in.
If sargassum doesn’t end up washing onto shore, eventually sargassum will lose its buoyancy and float down to live on the bottom of the ocean floor.
A Brief History of Sargassum Seaweed
Found by Portuguese explorers long ago when they were sailing in the Atlantic ocean, sargassum seaweed was given the name sargaço because it reminded them of a type of grape.
Sargassum is pelagic, meaning it grows floating offshore, and is usually found in warmer latitudes. Because of warming oceans, it is available pretty much all year round, with peaks in warmer months.
Sargassum Seaweed’s Role in the Ocean Ecosystem
While sargassum is living in the ocean, it’s completely normal and actually serves as an important part of the ecosystem for various ocean species – think fish, crabs, sea turtles, birds, shrimp, and more – to live, eat, and/or thrive in. This is especially true once it makes its way to the bottom of the ocean, as it provides carbon energy and nutrients to deep sea species.
However, when it reaches the coast and washes up on land…that’s another story.
Is Sargassum Seaweed Harmful?
The answer to this question is more complicated – because it’s very situational. As we shared before, there are numerous situations in which sargassum is very beneficial to the environment it’s living in. However, once it gets closer to the shore it can quite literally smother costal environments by negatively affecting fishing vessels, destroying the pH of the water close to shore, changing environments where coastal species live, and, ultimately, hurt tourism for communities that rely on it for their economy. For example, in 2019, the Mexican Government predicted that the invasion of sargassum could negatively affect tourism by up to 30%, costing the hospitality industry millions of dollars.
What About When Sargassum Seaweed Washes Up on Beaches?
Once on shore, if not properly collected and disposed of, sargassum can release heavy metals like arsenic into the groundwater supply. If you’ve ever walked by sargassum during the first week it washes up on shore, you’ll likely smell a rotten egg type odor – that’s the smell of rotten sargassum leaching harmful materials into the air and water around it.
In short, sargassum seaweed is considered trash or waste once it makes its way to its final resting place on shore.
Where Will I Find Sargassum Seaweed?
While you can find sargassum seaweed floating anywhere from Western Africa to the shores of the U.S., you’ll find large quantities of it in Florida, Mexico (Cancun), Puerto Rico, and Bermuda.
Has Sargassum Seaweed Always Been a Problem?
Sargassum seaweed has always been part of the ocean’s ecosystem, but unfortunately climate change has caused sargassum levels to rise, further exacerbating the issues we shared above.
Particularly, in 2011 scientists started to notice mass amounts of sargassum start to wash up on shore. Today, in the U.S., if you spend any time on a beach that’s located anywhere between the mid-Atlantic down to the Gulf Coast, you’re vacationing and/or living in the area of the country called the great “sargassum belt.” However, sargassum is present everywhere from West Africa to South America and upwards to the U.S.
Causes of Sargassum Seaweed Levels Rising
What is causing sargassum seaweed blooms to flourish and grow, you ask? Well, in short, humans.
With humans responsible for everything from deforestation to agricultural practices, mishandled wastewater treatment and more, we are wreaking havoc on the ocean in a number of measurable ways. These sargassum seaweed blooms are a direct consequence of those actions. Because humans are pushing nutrients and chemicals into our oceans that shouldn’t be there, temperatures are rising and harmful seaweed blooms are increasing ten fold.
How Much Sargassum Seaweed Exists?
It’s hard to know for certain – but it was reported that in June of 2022, there was over 24 million tons of sargassum in the Atlantic ocean alone (up from 18.8 million tons in May of the same year). Overall, it’s estimated that sargassum levels could be rising by up to 20% year-over-year.
What Time of Year is Sargassum Seaweed the Worst?
You’ll find sargassum all year round, but it typically starts in March and becomes the most dense during the summer months (June through August). You’ll see the biggest fluctuations in sargassum levels starting in March and ending in October. However, because our oceans are warming the patterns for sargassum are constantly shifting and we’re seeing sargassum seaweed blooms pop up along the coast in new areas.
In fact, today, it's now considered a year-round norm in the Caribbean.
Sargassum Seaweed Effects on Tourism
Because sargassum seaweed blooms are still a relatively new phenomenon that we’re working to better understand, many hotels and resorts are choosing to dispose of the sargassum themselves to ensure their guests can enjoy the beach sargassum free. However, with many hotels simply disposing of this seaweed in open fields, this practice is extremely harmful and may further leech pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions into the air and earth when they dispose of them. Fortunately, Grupo Ensol has discovered a solution to this problem.
Grupo Ensol Safely Cleaning Up Sargassum Seaweed from Resort Beaches
Grupo Ensol, a part of Carbonwave that acts as our collection division, is the world leader in upcycling the Caribbean Sargassum Belt, the largest seaweed bloom on the planet, into ultra-regenerative, plant-based, advanced biomaterials. By collaborating with local governments, community scientists, and resorts in Mexico’s Mayan Riviera to harvest the washed ashore, fresh sargassum before it decomposes on shore, Grupo Ensol is helping to prevent leaching of harmful methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia back into the earth. After collecting this fresh sargassum, CarbonWave upcycles sargassum into useful compounds. Which leads us to…
How to Upcycle Sargassum and Use it for Good
At CarbonWave, we know that seaweed provides a sustainable and regenerative platform to address carbon dioxide sequestration, pollution, and volatility resulting from climate change. After working with the Grupo Ensol team to secure fresh sargassum that has washed up on shore, we’ve developed a proprietary model that includes a cascading biorefinery to create a range of useful products that we believe can change the world.
Our chemists have used proprietary research and extraction techniques to pull only the best nutrients and materials from sargassum in order to create:
1. Natural Agricultural Seaweed Extract: Fertilizer and Plant Performance Booster
Given that sargassum is one of the fastest growing and most hardy plants on earth, we worked to extract key nutrients from the plant itself to see if it could help improve agricultural yield. In short, it did. We developed a plant fertilizer and performance booster that taps into the same processes that make it thrive in the ocean. Learn more about this by visiting Sarga Agriscience.
2. Highly Moisturizing Skin Care and Cosmetic Emulsifier
SeaBalance is a cosmetic and skin care emulsifier that we’ve developed through careful extraction of nutrients and moisturizing elements from sargassum seaweed. We’ve developed the emulsifier to perform well in cold process skincare applications that results in a unique and silky skin feel for any product it’s included in. The name of this product is called SeaBalance 2000.
3. Plant-Based Fabric
Still in the research and development phase, we’ve created a plant-based fabric that looks like leather or a non-woven. We’ve engineered this fabric to use the extraction of structural polymers and form films stronger than original sargassum seaweed it’s derived from. The end goal for this work in progress product is to become competitive with other vegan textiles and push the envelope on what we use to create sustainable fashion.
This is just a sampling of the many ways we believe sargassum can be upcycled to create new products that are good for us and good for the earth.
Understanding Your Role in Sargassum Seaweed Clean Up and Upcycling Use
If you see sargassum washed up on your local beach, consider how it’s being taken care of and if you can play a role in ensuring it’s cleaned up in a non-harmful way.
If you’re interested in utilizing products that are derived from sargassum for your business, please get in touch with the CarbonWave team to learn more about how we can partner.
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