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Seaweeds envelope Sierra Leone beaches

August 3, 2016 By Patrick Jaiah Kamara

The Atlantic ocean shouts and bellows like an infuriated gorilla beating its chest with every surge of the waves. As the surge of each wave moves towards the shore, unwanted shells, waste product and yellowish plants are deposited on the shores, covering the pristine white shinny sand on the beach.

The sudden appearance of the seaweeds on the beach has stopped beach goers and fishermen from doing their things easily along the beaches.

The unprecedented proliferation of thick brown algae is affecting fishing, tourism and marine life, which has inflicted ecological and socio-economic impacts to the sectors.

The influx of Sargassum seaweed is being attributed to factors that include warming of the ocean due to global climate change, discharge of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from agricultural runoff and wastewater originating from point sources and from major river basins such as the Congo and Amazon Rivers, and the deposition of iron and nutrient-rich Saharan dust in the ocean.

The tourism sector was shattered by the dreaded Ebola disease in mid 2014 to 2015. This invasion of seaweeds may add salt to the economic injury if it is not addressed immediately.

Lumley beach is the most easily accessible tourist attraction area, and fortunately for Sierra Leone, our beaches are the primary tourist attraction. But the sixth invasion of the weeds on the beach will definitely cut down drastically on tourist visitations.

Apart from the above, all other social activities that usually take place on the beach have been stalled.

Effort made by the government, through the line ministry – Tourism and Cultural Affairs – to salvage the situation is yet to see the light of the day.

Last week, the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, in collaboration with the National Tourist Board, organised a National Beach Cleaning Day; but it seems it was energy wasted and no work done because the seaweeds have enveloped the beach afresh.

When it engulfed the beach in 2011, many people associated the cause of the seaweeds invasion to mining. The seaweeds jigsaw, which is still being investigated by scientists, has continued to pose ecological catastrophe to the nation.

Sadly, no answers or solutions have been put in place for the mysterious seaweeds, but the good thing about it is that the region has galvanised to fight what they describe as ‘natural disaster’ that is threating the tourist economy.

In November 2015, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WABiCC) held the first Regional Expert Group conference at the Country Lodge in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in response to this new transatlantic marine environmental challenge with its negative effects on aquatic resources, fisheries, waterways, coastal habitats and the tourism sector in particular.

The meeting brought together marine-biologists, oceanographers, and policy experts from Sargassum affected countries in the region to share information, build knowledge on the phenomenon, promote best practice and develop ocean governance arrangement in combating the Sargassum phenomenon in West Africa.

Given the regional and trans-Atlantic nature of Sargassum and its impacts on the coastlines in the Caribbean and West Africa, addressing the problems would therefore require regional and global coordinated action beyond national jurisdictions.

This will include addressing the source of the problem related to nutrient loading and climate change stressors, and the possibility to invest in collection of floating seaweed mats before reaching sensitive coastal areas.

Implementing regional adaptive strategies will require greater understanding of the seasonal landing of seaweeds, including their growth dynamics, and their economic potential use, and outlining experimented use of Sargassum seaweed as bio-fuel, soil ameliorants, fertilisers and livestock feed, opening up possibilities for alterative green-economyand livelihoods for coastal communities.

All these problems surrounding the Sargassum seaweeds and possible solutions to manage them will be put together in a management strategy conference which would attract over fifteen affected countries from West African and the North Americas. The confab is scheduled for 9 and 10 August 2016, in Monrovia, Liberia

Since its inception on our beaches in 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that is charged with responsibility to conduct investigations into environmental issues, among other functions, had instituted three major experts research into the mysterious seaweeds.

The shimmering coastline of Sierra Leone is being destroyed by brownish seaweeds which scientists link to a similar invasion affecting beaches thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Professor Percival A.T. Showers of the Institute of Marine Biology & Oceanography Department, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, describes the seaweeds as ‘marine macroalgae’ or ‘plant-like organisms’.

He said the ones that have sieged Lumley Beach have travelled from the Gulf of Mexico. They have come from an area called the Sargasso Sea that covers an ocean space of 1/3 of the Africa continent.

“The Sargasso Sea has a substantial biodiversity rich area that host diverse collections of shrimps, crabs, lobster, fish, shell fish, sea turtles and other living organisms,” Prof. Showers said, adding that “so sargassum seaweed is a sort of resting place for sea turtles fish that embark on continental migration.

Sargassum is naturally occurring. Prof Showers explains that it is as a result of the current that flows within that area that cuts the edge of the seaweed, which eventually moves to Africa.

He said it normally happens when the monsoons winds start to blow, which aid its movement from North America to West Africa. The seaweed stages its invasion during the rainy season and this ecological problem is nowhere to end.

The Specialist in Living Aquatic Resources explains that the Sargassum is free-floating brown seaweed that blossoms naturally in the warm waters of the Sargasso Sea of the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

Since 2011 there has been an explosion in the quantities of Sargassum reaching the shores of countries of the Caribbean and West Africa, inflicting severe ecological and socio-economic impacts, particularly to the tourism sector and coastal fishing activities.

Preventing the occurrence of marine bio-invasion such as Sargassum seaweed is by far the best option to avoid ecological damage to the region’s native marine vegetation, said Prof Showers.

The menace of seaweeds that have taken over the beautiful coastal lines is disturbing fishermen from earning legitimate income by spreading through their routes. In Sierra Leone, the sector contributes 80 percent to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and over 500,000 people depend on fishing for their livelihoods.

This means that hundreds of Sierra Leonean youths may be out of business until the invasive species end their occupation.

Habour Master of Capital River, Goderich, Mohamed Conteh, says the artisanal fishing industry has been severely hit by the invasive seaweeds.

He reveals that they use about twenty gallons of petrol per day for fishing, and adds that most times the propeller of their motorised fishing boat gets entangled by the seaweeds.

He notes that the seaweeds drive away the fishing population into the sea and that since the invasion, their chains catch more seaweeds than fish, noting that until the seaweeds rot before the chains are ready for fishing.

On his part, Natheniel Macauley, a fisherman at One Pole, Lumley Beach, says he has stopped fishing for the last three months. He called on the government to provide them with alternative livelihoods seasonally since the seaweeds now appear during each rainy season.

Hotel and restaurant owners are also affected by the invasive seaweeds along the costal lines, losing millions of Leones as the number of revelers to the popular beachfront has nosedived considerably.

If urgent actions are not taken to address this environmental catastrophe, it would generate to a level that will be difficult to handle by both the government and private individuals – investors, revelers etc. – with a potential to enveloping Sierra Leone’s potential in the tourism sector, thus stifling economic growth and environmental health.

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