In an effort to secure his livelihood from the invasion of sargasso seaweed, a fisherman in Antigua resorted to an innovative fishing technique that quickly turned too dangerous to continue.
Melvin Samuel, a deep diver and spear fisherman got the idea to catch fish that travel with blooms of sargassum seaweed.
The concentration of sargassum seaweed that seasonally enters Caribbean waters can damage fishing gear, boat engines and other fishing equipment. It can also block access to fishing harbours and mooring sites.
According to Samuel, the dying plant burns his skin and leaves paper-like cuts on his body when he gets too close during diving. He described the smell as “a toilet” – all good reasons for fishermen like Samuel to seek alternatives.
He observed that pelagic fish like to follow the seaweed and used the opportunity to easily fish at the rim of the grass beds until a near-death experience. Samuel had advised line fishers and divers to cast their lines near more compact bunches of seaweed and to wait for the fish to bite. He offered it up as a solution to increase their productivity levels in seaweed-infested waters.
For seven months, he was able to find various species of fish. This improved his revenue stream. He was elated that for a while he thought he had found a way to fish within floating sargassum. Samuel didn’t account for a water current that would carry a large bed of seaweed directly over him one day while he was underwater. He was trapped several feet beneath a blanket of brown seaweed. It was at that moment that he realized that his life was under threat and his decision to chase a dolphinfish (mahi-mahi) at the edge of a sargassum bloom was a risky one.
For several hours, he tried his best to get above the thick sargassum only to realise in the end that this fish he had been chasing was dead. “I always tried to keep upwind from it so that that doesn’t happen and I was stuck for a while. For a while, I thought I was gone,” he said.
“It came down too fast on me and it was too thick so I got stuck in it. I didn’t want to let go of my gun [spearfishing gun] and that was a major problem and it just got worse from that but then it got better”, he recalled.
The experience was so unforgettable that he is now discouraging other fishermen from practicing this method.
Will sargassum levels decrease?
Massive seaweed blooms have become a norm each year in the Caribbean Sea. Since 2011, high volumes of sargassum seaweed have encroached on the coastlines. Ruleo Camacho, a local marine ecologist said the concentration of sargassum in 2022 was the worst year on record in the Western Atlantic region. “This was the worst year that we’ve seen since 2011. Previous to this, 2018 was the worst year and that year shattered 2018 records,” he shared. While the presence of the seaweed dissipated in the customary months between October and February, he noted that the amount of grass compared to other years had increased.
“In June or July , there were like 14 million tons so, the four or five million tons that you were seeing in December was a big drop from before,” he noted.
These large blooms are causing dead zones to develop, killing marine species and sucking the oxygen out of the air. Large amounts of sargassum have been spotted in the Atlantic, which means Antigua and Barbuda should expect increased beaching events in February and March. Already in January, considered to be one of the milder months for large blooms, Camacho noted that lines of sargassum are apparent.
“It does seem as if sargassum is going to continue to be an issue,” he said but noted too that there are opportunities to understand how the raw plant can be used sustainably. The running theory is that ocean warming caused by climate change is significantly influencing the large influx of algae floating in Caribbean waters.
“There are some thoughts as it relates to sea temperatures; there are thoughts as it relates to pollution coming through the Amazon River feeding the nutrients into the air so that the sargassum is growing; there are thoughts as it relates to Sahara dust potentially because Sahara dust is rich in iron and iron is a limiting factor in plant growth,” he explained.
Over in Barbuda, sargassum can rise up to 20 feet tall on the northern, eastern and southern coast, according to Leroy Gore, President of the Barbuda Fisherfolk Association. When that happens fisherfolk on the island tend to fish on the western coast or take their boats further into the ocean to avoid encountering problems with sargassum.
Meanwhile, fishermen like Samuel try to find other ways to work with the sargassum without putting themselves in harm’s way. Sargassum continues to not only threaten the lives of fishermen but robs them of the opportunity to make a living and to provide food for communities that are heavily dependent on marine life to sustain local jobs.
Samuel’s story and the scientific evidence which indicates that interaction with sargassum blooms will continue to worsen is one of several reasons why larger pollutant countries like China, the United States and the European Union need to accelerate efforts to finance loss and damage, mitigation, and adaptation for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Antigua & Barbuda.
According to the United Nations, over the past 50 years, SIDS lost $153 billion due to weather, climate and water-related hazards (UNDRR). It noted that it is billions of dollars that islands like Antigua and Barbuda could have spent on education, health, infrastructure, and socio-economic development.
Receiving assistance post-disaster, as is commonly done, is simply not enough for the twin island state to remain economically viable but appropriate financing for adaptation to these climate change events can allow the government to personalise solutions to the changes affecting the livelihoods of its people.
This story was originally published on Wadadli Unplugged, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.