Case Study: Teleconnected SARgassum Risks Across the Atlantic Building Capacity for TRansformational Adaptation in the Caribbean and West Africa (SARTRAC)

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“Sargassum represents both a threat and an opportunity for Caribbean states. Entrepreneurs are developing innovative products from Sargassum, such as fertilisers, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The scientists on the SARTRAC teams are assisting this process by investigating and advancing processes for monitoring and forecasting, and by exploring novel ways for transformative adaptation of Sargassum to empower communities whose livelihoods have been affected by this ecological risk, to turn it into an opportunity.”

Dr Janice Cumberbatch, country and project lead for University of West Indies, Cave Hill campus (Barbados).

“Sargassum is a major threat to vulnerable coastal communities in Ghana. It is impacting negatively on the small-scale fishing industry, which is a major source of livelihood in poor communities. SARTRAC will enable the poorest of the poor in vulnerable communities to discover the economic potentials of Sargassum to enhance their adaptive capacity.”

Prof. Kwasi Appeaning Addo, Director for the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies, University of Ghana.

Summary

The stranding of floating seaweed (Sargassum) rafts is a recent regular phenomenon affecting Atlantic coastal nations of the Caribbean, Central America and tropical West Africa. While the reasons for this unusual landfall are not yet fully understood, affected communities must find ways to deal with the seaweed, which can smother beaches, block harbours and become toxic to humans and wildlife as it decomposes, with adverse effects on vital fishing and tourism activities. Its effects are felt most strongly by vulnerable small island developing states.

The SARTRAC project is an initiative to confront this problem on many levels: by improving the observation of oceanographic conditions to better forecast stranding events; by developing options to utilise or benefit from the stranded seaweed; and by enabling the sharing of information among affected communities to better manage a coordinated response.

The project was launched shortly before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, a determined and resourceful management team has maximised the potential of alternative working practices to deliver significant early progress that will bear fruit on the ground in affected nations as soon as pandemic restrictions allow. Such progress includes the creation of an online presence, building the skillset of its team to accommodate remote working, convening virtual capacity-building workshops on both sides of the Atlantic and publishing early findings from scientific efforts to better detect floating Sargassum rafts and their movement using remotely observed data.

Challenges other than pandemic restrictions have included overcoming delays associated with changes in political leadership in some partner countries, as well as ensuring an adequate provision of technical capacity for coordinated remote working across the partnership.

The issue

Since 2011, Sargassum, a type of seaweed, has been forming extensive floating mats that drift with the wind and currents across the 5,500 longitudinal miles of the tropical Atlantic Ocean. Prior to 2011, large accumulations of the seaweed were commonly only found in the sub-tropical northern Atlantic Ocean (The Sargasso Sea), where it is considered a floating forest, providing food, home and temporary shelter to numerous marine species.

Anomalous weather events, strong winds and currents, together with increased nutrient availability and a warmer ocean, have led to the proliferation of large rafts of Sargassum, including a previously rare species variant, washing up on coastlines across the Atlantic tropics in staggering quantities and being blown ashore. In 2018, some rafts grew in size to more than 1.3 million square meters (approximately the size of 250 football pitches). The Sargassum mass stranding phenomenon affects North, South and Central America’s eastern shores, the Caribbean islands and the coast of West Africa, impacting coastal communities in over 30 countries. Decomposing stranded Sargassum can have damaging effects on human health, beach access, fishing, tourism and nearshore marine communities. The sudden influx of Sargassum on vulnerable coastlines has been difficult to predict, as such extraordinary strandings can vary seasonally, annually and spatially across its range. Improving the predictability of Sargassum strandings, and developing ways to create benefits from the seaweed when it does strand, is the impetus for the SARTRAC project.

The response

The Sargassum seaweed influxes mainly affect developing countries, with the exception of the United States and
a few Caribbean islands. In most cases, the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities are directly affected, as are the key sectors that rely on coastal access and healthy seas, notably fisheries and tourism. The SARTRAC project explores how Sargassum seaweed can be used to reduce poverty. Specifically, the project has three goals:

  1. to identify how to minimise the negative impacts of Sargassum on the poorest;
  2. to identify whether Sargassum can be used to build adaptive capacity to natural hazards;
  3. to assess whether Sargassum can improve the economic opportunities of the poorest affected groups.

Four main areas of research are being pursued to deliver these goals. The first is an assessment of the atmospheric and oceanographic drivers of Sargassum across the tropical Atlantic Ocean. This information is used to develop long-term (6-9 month) forecasts of Sargassum movement across the Atlantic and will be available for country governments to download and access for use in their Sargassum seasonal planning. The second area is to develop a near real-time early warning system for vulnerable coastal communities to predict where, when and how Sargassum will reach land. Satellite imagery, combined with drone monitoring, enables locally sensitive prediction of events in the days prior to landing. The third area involves identifying the most vulnerable communities as well as their potential adaptation strategies to deal with stranded Sargassum, both of which are key elements of the project. Biochemical analysis of the seaweed, together with local experimentation, is essential to ascertain its utility. Three options being explored are:

  1. the role of Sargassum as compost for mangrove seedlings, to support mangrove regrowth to protect against storm surges;
  2. small scale biogas production from the controlled decomposition of Sargassum;
  3. opportunities for using Sargassum as a fertiliser for growing tomatoes and corn.

The capacity and adaptability of affected communities to analyse and make best use of the stranded Sargassum is assisted by a centralised knowledge hub, through which they submit findings and can share experiences of success or failure as well as forge collaborative partnerships.

Teleconnected SARgassum Risks Across the Atlantic: Building Capacity for TRansformational Adaptation in the Caribbean and West Africa (SARTRAC) – Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Ghana (ongoing)
Sargassum detection algorithm using remote and direct observation data.

The fourth area of research is to explore how improved management of Sargassum can increase the opportunities that are available to the poorest communities. Together, these four areas are generating tools (e.g., a long-range forecast system is in development), resources (e.g., a severity index has been developed that can be applied in other areas) and knowledge to support pathways out of poverty for those affected.

Partnerships and support

The SARTRAC partnership comprises an interdisciplinary team of six research collaborators from four countries, led by the University of Southampton (United
Kingdom), and includes the University of Ghana, the Mona Geoinformatics Institute at the University of the West Indies (Jamaica campus), the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of the West Indies (Jamaica campus), the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies at the University of the West Indies (Barbados campus), and the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York (United Kingdom).

All the partners are involved in the design, implementation and budgeting of the project. Specific project goals are delivered by subgroups of the consortium, with the Centre for Marine Studies, in collaboration with the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, leading the collation and analysis of potential uses for Sargassum; the Mona Geoinformatics Institute leading the mapping of the impacts of Sargassum on the Jamaican coast; and the Centre for Resource Management & Environmental Studies leading the stakeholder engagement programme and exploration of governance models, whilst collaborating with the University of Ghana and the University of Southampton on developing Sargassum tracking models. Overall, SARTRAC is a truly collaborative programme, with all partners contributing, generating and gaining knowledge in equal measure.

The project is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Fund and the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund under an Economic and Social Research Council grant. As of March 2021, a further two externally funded grant applications to develop capacity-building resources have been won by the consortium. The project is scheduled to run from November 2019 to October 2022.

Image
Teleconnected SARgassum Risks Across the Atlantic: Building Capacity for TRansformational Adaptation in the Caribbean and West Africa (SARTRAC) – Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Ghana (ongoing)

Framework for the development of an early warning system for Sargassum strandings in the Caribbean and Ghana.

Results, accomplishments and outcomes

Despite restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, progress has been made and remote meetings via virtual platforms have been possible.

The project has forged ahead with building its online profile, developing a dedicated website and social media presence and furnishing both with recorded interviews of key partners detailing their main findings to date and their plans. The programme of capacity-building has been delayed due to travel restrictions; however, online work has started to bring all partners’ skillsets and technical capacity to the same level.

Three capacity-building workshops have been held virtually with stakeholders to develop the mapping and social science skills necessary to deliver progress on all the project’s work elements. Field work, further in-person stakeholder engagement and training events as well as data analysis and dissemination events remain to be carried out once global travel restrictions are lifted.

Progress on the scientific front so far includes:

  1. Development of a prototype long-term (up to 180 days hence) seaweed forecast system SARTRAC- EFS (EFS = Ensemble Forecast System). The EFS predicts a high level of Sargassum will affect Jamaica in the summer of 2021. This prediction is currently being analysed and validated with ground-truth data from Jamaica and satellite observations. The consortium is planning to work with stakeholders to better understand how this information can be shared with them.
  2. Three geomorphological characteristics appear important in determining where Sargassum will beach with the greatest severity. In Jamaica, these places are: coves, open coast and narrow shelf areas with steep bathymetry near shore, with coastal areas with mangroves appearing the least severely affected. A severity index is being created that is transferable to other locations.
  3. To support the growth of red mangrove seedlings, composts containing different proportions of Sargassum have been investigated. After 31 weeks, the compost with 75 per cent Sargassum was the best, whereas 100 per cent Sargassum showed the poorest health and loss of succulence. Research is ongoing to assess the best ways to use Sargassum for agricultural purposes.
  4. National level strategies to manage an increased frequency of Sargassum strandings are well developed. However, regional and international coordination is hampered by size-related capacity constraints in small island developing states that also suffer disproportionately from major stranding events. Alternative governance frameworks and strategies are being explored.

Results from remote sensing, tracking and forecasting of Sargassum movements have been published in the scientific literature, while an evaluation of several satellite-based Sargassum detection algorithms to select the most suitable has been performed. Experiments on the chemical stability of stranded Sargassum and its utility for various applications has started, with useful preliminary results. Maps of past stranding events have been created for Jamaica to show where the worse impacted areas are located. Theoretical frameworks to assess adaptation potential and future cooperative governance scenarios for Sargassum have been developed.

Challenges

As well as challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, others have emerged during the course of the project thus far that have had to be overcome.

Between the project’s inception and the granting of its funding, significant progress was made on the topic of Sargassum and its coordinated management – e.g., the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Sargassum Working Group – that overlapped with some intended project deliverables and had to be accommodated retrospectively into the project’s plans. Challenges were also encountered during the lead-up to the launch of the project by the holding of national elections in Ghana and the United Kingdom; these events reduced momentum, attention, visibility by potential stakeholders and the certainty of political backing over the intended lifetime of the project. Recruitment of staff for key posts in partner institutions could not proceed until the project contract was signed, resulting in a delay between the project launch and the commencement of new staff. Concurrent financial and corporate restructuring in UK partner institutions also had knock-on effects on the stability of key roles.

Stakeholder engagement has been difficult under pandemic restrictions and only successful with those having stable internet connectivity; as a result, those most able to engage have been national government departments, large multi-national organisations (UNEP) and international Sargassum researchers. Engagement with target communities has not yet been possible. Alternative plans are in development to enable the use of app-based data-recording instruments that can be accessed via mobile/cell phones.

Key lessons learnt

Initial assessment has revealed that regional environmental governance structures in the Caribbean are well placed to support adaptation strategies for an increased frequency of Sargassum strandings. However, the cost of coordination of such cooperative and polycentric environmental governance frameworks is relatively high for many small island developing states in the region, which can suffer disproportionately from major stranding events. Alternative governance frameworks and strategies are being explored. To advance project findings, more localised monitoring data are needed to allow countries to more accurately assess the severity of Sargassum landing events. These should be collected over the coming year.

Given the need for most staff to work from home during various lockdown regimes across countries, developing an inventory of skills and technical capacity within the SARTRAC consortium was an unforeseen yet necessary and ultimately valuable step to enable the effective coordination of activities. The setting up of a well-functioning website has been crucial to share content, news and updates among the partners. Various capacity-building activities have been undertaken virtually to support access across the consortium. For example, to create a sense of team cohesiveness, and to learn more about each other, the project lead (Tompkins) interviewed all team members and asked them what the most interesting thing they had learned about Sargassum was and what areas of research they were most looking forward to collaborating on. The interviews were uploaded to the SARTRAC website (podcast section) and remain the most accessed part of the website by project partners and external parties. In addition, elements of the research that are central to project delivery (theory of change and transformational adaptation) were discussed collaboratively, and those sessions have been uploaded to the project website for easy access (blogs section).

The enforced limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the value of lateral thinking, flexibility of approach, alternative operational pathways, technological advances in group communication and determination to deliver results regardless of the challenges.

Lead contact

Emma Tompkins, University of Southampton, Project Lead

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How one young scientist is tackling plastic pollution in The Bahamas

A blog by Metolo Foyet, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

By 2025, it is estimated that The Bahamas will have around 687 million metric tons of plastic debris on its shorelines. This is more than the combined weight of the people who live on the islands.

One islander who wants to change this is Kristal Ambrose, environmental scientist and founder of The Bahamas Plastic Movement.

The Movement educates local people about plastic pollution through youth camps that use arts and data science to encourage policy change.

Meeting Kristal

I had the opportunity to speak with Kristal, an enthusiastic young islander who has been driving awareness of marine debris for over a decade and was recognised for her tireless work in 2020 with a Goldman Environmental Prize.

Kristal first learned about the dangers of plastic pollution in 2012, when she was on a sailing expedition in the Pacific Ocean to study the Western Garbage Patch, a 1.6 million square kilometre floating mass of plastic debris.

Isolated in the middle of the ocean, no aeroplanes flying over, no island in the distance, no boats passing by – just her, wildlife and: waste.

Kristal saw things that shouldn’t be in the middle of the ocean. Toys; a plastic comb that looked like one she had at home; a toothbrush of the same brand as that in her bag. And dead coastal animals tangled in plastic.

In particular, a sergeant major, the fish she had learned to identify when she first got into the field of marine science. Seeing that fish killed by plastic triggered a self-realization for Kristal: “I was the biggest plastic consumer that I knew. I was a huge part of the problem, and equally I felt I could be a huge part of the solution.”


Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Engaging youth

Soon after her trip, in 2013 Kristal started the Plastic Beach Project – a citizen science initiative which studied the concentration of plastic on local beaches.

Then, in 2014, she initiated the Plastic Pollution Education and Ocean Conservation Camp, a tuition free, summer-intensive program that engages young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. The program is funded through individual donations and small community grants from local and foreign organisations.

As the only member of staff, Kristal does all the logistics, fundraising, communications and research herself, but runs the summer camp with counsellors and volunteers.

Each year, the camp closes with a community show where students create songs, skits, poetry and dances related to plastic pollution.

“Whether you like it or not” – Poem by DeAnntae Hepburn, 7 years old, Plastic Camp 2019

Whether the sea be fine or whether the sea be not

Whether the sea be clean, but we know humans still haven’t fought

Not for the sea, not for the sand

Not for Bahamians’ gorgeous land

We have to change, whatever it takes

Whether we like it or not.

Success stories

Through beach clean-ups, school visits, citizen science projects and camps, Kristal has encouraged thousands of young people locally as well as globally to get into plastic pollution activism.

Some of her proudest achievements include:

  • Creating a ripple effect

One of the biggest impacts of plastic camp is the confidence young people leave the programme with. Kristal says they go home with “seeds of hope” that they plant in their communities through friends and families, which then blossom into new collective behaviours in society.

She says: “In 2019, I randomly saw one of the students from the camp. He was with his mother and had the exact same metal straw and metal cup that we gave him at the camp two years prior. His mother said he takes it everywhere and refuses to use any plastic. And that is just one isolated example, there are so many others.”

  • Taking the initiative

Another achievement Kristal is proud of is her resourceful networking. She was working at a field station on the island of Eleuthera when she first heard of the expedition to the Western Garbage Patch. By telling everyone about this $10,000 a seat trip, she eventually received support from a donor.

  • The Plastic Warrior Feedback Loop

The Bahamas Plastic Movement’s theory of change shows how graduated students come back into the programme to share their knowledge with other students.


Diagram designed by Metolo Foyet, based on model conceptualised by Kristal Ambrose

The Movement is also creating a ‘programmes manual’ to facilitate replication. But despite scaling her success, Kristal remains cautious: “I think having slow growth but high impact is important and once I am done with this chapter, we can get the board going. But right now, I am okay with the slow.”

  • Changing policy

At the end of the 2017 UNEP General Assembly in Nairobi, Kristal noted that most countries made a commitment to ban single-use plastic. But not The Bahamas.

Once home, she pulled her camps’ brightest students for a three-day workshop. They conducted a survey in the community to see if people would support a ban or tax on single-use plastic.

Next they worked with a local lawyer who taught them about legislation. Then in March 2018, students ranging in age between 10 and 14 years old, went with Kristal to the office of The Bahamas Minister of Environment and Housing.

Their efforts worked. On Earth Day 2018, April 22, the Minister announced that The Bahamas was banning single-use plastic, starting from January 2020.

  • Plastic Warriors Try

In 2021, alongside the regular camps, Kristal launched a sustainability and media communication program called ‘Plastic Warriors Try’. The fun, educational vlog series documents students’ journeys as they discover how to make their own products instead of buying new.

Kristal describes the week-long programme: “In the morning we learn about a new subject such as menstruation and look at how much waste is generated from that and what alternatives can be used. Looking at personal care products – all the toothpastes and deodorants and things that come wrapped in plastic – how can we make our own?

“In the Caribbean and Africa, we use a lot of synthetic hair, which is made from plastic. All of the gels come in plastic bottles. But there is a Black-owned company that makes hair out of plant-based material, and they take fibers from a certain type of plant and dye it, and you can braid your hair with it. It’s also compostable.

“Working with a local agricultural engineer, we’ll extract banana fibers from local banana trees to make our own hair. We are going to make our own gel from flax seed. We’ll learn about it in class, and the students will document how to make these things together when they are at home and will do their own video journal, and our editors will put them all together.”


Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Facing challenges

While Kristal has seen much success, she still faces problems in her mission to raise awareness of plastic pollution locally. These include:

  • Ineffective waste management

The plastic ban in the country is just specific to single-use plastic, but other types of plastic are still making their way through, including water bottles, snack packaging and plastic films. This is because as a small island development state, The Bahamas relies heavily on imports.

More than 90 percent of everything consumed in the country is shipped in, leaving behind a lot of waste from foreign sources, such as food, batteries, light bulbs, cars and building materials.

A lot of this waste could be recovered and circled right back into the economy or into other projects, but for the most part it goes to landfill.

Kristal explains: “We need to really look at waste management because the reality is we are replacing one waste over another. We need to get plastic out of the supply chain. The landfills in The Bahamas make this even more complicated: we have so many islands, and right now it is hard to regulate these in a uniform way.

“On the smaller islands in The Bahamas, everything is landfill. It is all mixed, not separated, not properly engineered. They just burn it. This causes health and social justice issues because those toxins go into communities. It is a big issue there. We need more synchronicity and better strategies for our waste management in the country.”

Then there is the plastic that is washed in from the southern Caribbean, west coast of Africa and the tourism industry.

The Bahamian population is just under 400,000, but every year, 5 million people visit, bringing and generating a lot of waste. Cruise ships also leave their waste in the country.

On top of that is disaster debris. As climate change intensifies, storms are becoming more frequent and stronger. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, leaving behind 1.5 billion pounds of debris. While it is a complex issue, it is all related to plastic.


Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

  • Lack of ownership

Kristal has realised that although the health, environmental and economic impact of single-use plastic is well known, the convenience of plastic is embedded in society.  She also recognises that the narrative accusing locals for trashing the beaches is problematic, because a lot of plastic comes from other remote locations.

“Connection is key. I could go there and say ‘don’t litter, save the coral reef’, but if I haven’t been on that coral reef and not experienced the magic, I am not going to be as inclined to truly commit to it.

“Ownership is achieved by getting people outside of their comfort zone and getting them in nature, in the ocean, in these natural spaces, and getting them to really tap into what it does to their psyche. Getting them to love it and then they protect what they love.

“Through that connection you start fostering things like eating only certain fish when it is in season or using eco-friendly products.

“Shaming, blaming, and forcing people to do things doesn’t work. Communities effortlessly protect their habitats once people feel connected, listened to, engaged in dialogue and associated to decision-making.”

  • Tackling the problem at source

We keep talking about recycling plastic, but someone keeps producing it. Adopting sustainable manufacturing could help resolve the plastic issue.

Kristal explains: “Plastic is oil which is a big-money industry that does a lot of lobbying to overturn plastic bans. To properly turn off the tap to plastic pollution you need to turn off the tap to production.

“The production level of plastic is going to skyrocket by 2050 to billions of pounds, which is more than we produce every year. Industry is a big part of the conversation that is often left out.”

  • Social media

The changing culture due to globalization and the growth of social media have made it easier for young people to express their opinions.

Kristal believes young people are given more opportunities to speak up today, but warns that talking about plastic could be depressing and overwhelming, so mental health support is critical to effective activism.

“Growing up, I don’t remember seeing any young children on the frontlines fighting for change, and often it is because our voices were suppressed.

“Today, I see social media spaces where young people are encouraged to speak, step up and tackle so many issues. It is really empowering to see that.”


Image credit: Kristal Ambrose

Following a dream

Working with young people is rewarding Kristal believes, because they learn fast, bring new perspectives and are powerful and effective in their leadership.

Bringing passion, energy and creativity, young people think outside of the box, as well as being good with technology and social media.

“They think about things in different ways that I may not consider, and sometimes it takes the student saying ‘I don’t think this is going to work, what if we try it this way’.”

Kristal’s story shows that resilience and optimism are ingredients for success. It sends a message to everyone – especially Black and brown children in The Bahamas – that they can do it too. That there are no limitations.

She offers useful advice to young activist entrepreneurs: “It is going to be hard. People can project their fears onto you. You are going to have to remember your why and always come back to it. Be fearless and lead with the heart.

“My purpose is beyond plastic, it is really about representation and showing that you could be from a small community, a poor family, a non-Ivy League graduate, and still be a source of inspiration.”

To successfully empower communities to act on climate and environmental issues like plastic pollution, Kristal’s movement shows that we must help young people understand that they have the power to make a difference.

As we close our conversation, Kristal says: “The science is as simple as picking the plastic and counting it and using it as a tool of empowerment to say that science is for everyone.

“You don’t have to look a certain way to be a scientist. Our work is truly rooted in the hopefulness of engaging young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. It is challenging, but so fulfilling and joyful.”

To learn more about Kristal Ambrose’s innovative plastic pollution programmes, visit the Bahamas Plastic Movement.

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

You can share this blog series on social media with the hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.