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Red Tide vs Sargassum: What’s the Difference?

December 21, 2023

What is Red Tide?

Red tide is a natural phenomenon, often characterized by the discoloration of water bodies due to the proliferation of certain algae species. These algal blooms, predominantly made up of dinoflagellates, can produce toxins harmful to marine life, ecosystems, and even human health. When the conditions are right, including adequate sunlight, warm temperatures, and especially an abundance of nutrients, these microorganisms multiply rapidly, resulting in masses that can cover extensive areas of the water surface. The toxins released during a red tide event can lead to massive fish kills, contaminate shellfish, and cause respiratory issues in humans, particularly those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Additionally, the economic impact on fisheries and tourism industries has been substantial, prompting the need for continuous monitoring and research to better understand and mitigate the effects of red tide events.

What causes red tide?

Red tide often stems from a combination of factors including warming sea waters and nutrient runoff from urban and agricultural areas. Nutrient-rich runoff, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, fuels the explosive growth of these harmful microalgae. This is why red tide often gets confused with sargassum – there is a lot of overlap in reasoning and causation.

Why is the red tide concerning?

Toxins produced by red tides spell significant threats to marine life, frequently leading to large-scale fish deaths. Additionally, these toxins can infiltrate the human food chain, particularly through seafood consumption, posing both environmental and public health challenges.

Can red tide be avoided?

While complete prevention of red tides is challenging, mitigating its effects or frequency of occurrence is possible. Proper management of agricultural nutrient runoff, increased research, and timely response to outbreaks can help reduce its harmful impact on a local level.

Now let’s discuss Sargassum seaweed.

What is the Sargassum seaweed influx?

Sargassum, a free-floating brown macroalgae or seaweed, has gained attention in recent years due to its extensive and unanticipated mass in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Originating from the Sargasso Sea, these masses of seaweed often drift to shorelines, accumulating on beaches and affecting coastal ecosystems. While Sargassum plays a critical role in marine biodiversity, providing habitat and nourishment for various species, its overgrowth can pose challenges. Thick mats of Sargassum on coastlines can hinder sea turtle nesting, release a pungent odor upon decomposition, and even impact local tourism due to the unappealing sight and smell.

Furthermore, the sudden and massive influx of Sargassum can stress local ecosystems, affecting both marine and shoreline habitats. The causes behind the sudden proliferation of Sargassum seaweed remain under study, but factors like climate change, ocean currents, and nutrient runoffs are often cited as potential contributors.

We have a whole blog post on this topic if you want to dive deep into the Sargassum seaweed 101.

What is causing the Sargassum seaweed influx?

The Sargassum seaweed mass accumulation is primarily caused by warmer ocean temperatures and nutrient input from sources like urban or agricultural areas. Many organizations and research institutions are conducting studies to find out more information about sargassum, but there’s still a lot to uncover.

Why is the Sargassum seaweed influx concerning?

Sargassum doesn’t emit harmful toxins while living in the water like red tide does. However, its decomposition releases methane gas, an influential greenhouse contributor. Besides its environmental repercussions, copious sargassum arrivals can disrupt coastal habitats, affect tourism, and challenge marine transport.

Can the Sargassum seaweed influx be avoided?

Entirely preventing Sargassum wash up is currently beyond our grasp due to its magnitude. However, understanding and mitigating its causes—like agricultural nutrient influx and warming ocean temperatures—can pave the way for better management. Climate change is a primary driver of this influx, so anything we can do to support climate change legislation and companies addressing the issue head-on is important.

What is the difference between red tide vs Sargassum?

At a glance, both red tide and Sargassum might seem like mere marine growths. But they differ in many aspects.

In Adriana Guzmán Domínguez, BSc, Lab Technician at Carbonwave’s words:

“Red tide is a type of harmful algal bloom composed of microalgae such as dinoflagellates and are driven by nutrient runoff. These blooms appear as red or reddish-brown waters. On the other hand, Sargassum is a brown macroalgae or seaweed that arrives on the shores in excess due to overgrowth in the Sargasso Sea. These are often called Golden Tides due to Sargassum’s gold color when it’s in the water (it gets brown as it decomposes on land).

Both phenomena are concerning for marine ecosystems and human populations, albeit for different reasons. While red tides directly affect marine life and human health through toxin production, Sargassum arrivals contribute to environmental challenges through methane emissions and other disruptive impacts.”

In understanding both of these similar but different marine events, we can better equip ourselves to respond to their challenges and appreciate the dynamic nature of our marine ecosystems.

Tackling the red tide vs Sargassum: corporate initiatives

Both red tide and Sargassum wash up have become pressing issues, and addressing them requires proactive initiatives, collaboration, and innovation. Fortunately, companies worldwide are recognizing the gravity of these marine events and are channeling resources to combat their effects.

For red tide, research institutions, alongside biotech and marine companies, are diving deeper into early detection methods and potential ways to neutralize the harmful toxins produced. Collaborative efforts focus on monitoring water quality, promoting sustainable farming to reduce nutrient runoff, and investing in technologies that can help forecast these events.

In the case of the Sargassum influx, industries, particularly those in the tourism sector, have adopted both preventive and reactive measures. These range from building barriers in the sea to prevent seaweed from reaching the beaches to finding innovative uses for collected Sargassum, turning an environmental challenge into an opportunity. Carbonwave, in partnership with Grupo Ensol, is at the forefront of these efforts, exploring ways to leverage Sargassum for environmental solutions./blog/what-are-the-various-sargassum-uses

Both challenges underscore the crucial role companies play in shaping a sustainable future. With shared commitment and innovative strategies, the business sector can be a significant catalyst in addressing and mitigating the impacts of red tide and Sargassum influx.

Curious to learn more about the work Carbonwave is doing with Sargassum and how you can get involved? Reach out. Thanks for reading!

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