We have done but greenly


When I was younger and just beginning to realize that there were many mysteries left unsolved in the world, I came across a story about the Sargasso Sea. It was a huge area of floating seaweed near Bermuda that was said entrap unwary sailing ships that wandered into it for eternity should they be becalmed. Whoaa…

In those days, at least, the major area of the floating plants occurred in the Horse Latitudes in an area around 30 degrees north or south of the equator; it’s an area where the winds diverged and flowed either towards the poles or toward the equator because of an area of high pressure. It is also bordered by four sea currents, which mean it is pretty well cut off from the rest of the Atlantic Ocean -hence becoming a sea deserving of its own name. And because of the resulting locally calm winds and diverging currents, sailing ships were often unable to progress. If they ran out of drinking water, legend has it that the crew would throw their thirsty cargo overboard (often horses being taken to America for some reason)… I mean how could that not capture the imagination of a shy boy who found books more available than girls?

But there it lingered – entangled somewhere in old, seldom used neurons- until, as these things happen, I tripped over it in a BBC Future article on my way to who knows what. I have to admit that I had no idea how much its reach had extended in the interim -the Sea, not the neural plaque, though. It was an article by free-lance journalist Isabelle Gerretsen that stirred the pot. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201119-atlantic-ocean-the-largest-seaweed-bloom-in-history

No longer an isolated, mat of seaweed floating lonely as a cloud with its denizens of abandoned, rotting ships, their canvass idly fluttering in the windless ripples, in 2018 it was lapping at Mexican beaches carrying, not ghostly masts, or disembodied hulls, so much as plastic detritus and stray metal fragments. And to further besmirch its once romantic designation as the ‘floating golden rainforest’, when sargassum washes up on the beach it begins to rot, emitting hydrogen sulphide – a gas that smells like rotten eggs. Not only is this not good for tourism, but in some areas there is so much of it clogging the beaches -sometimes meters high- it becomes a problem of disposal.

But it wasn’t just Mexico’s problem. ‘It stretched from one coast to the other, from the shores of West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. Spanning 8,850 kilometres (5,000 miles), the seaweed bloom, known as the great Atlantic sargassum belt, was the largest ever recorded… After analysing 19 years of satellite data, researchers at the University of South Florida found that since 2011 the sargassum bloom has appeared annually and is growing in size.’

There are some theories as to why this is happening of  course: ‘a number of environmental factors are contributing to the sargassum explosion. Among them are abnormal ocean currents and wind patterns linked to climate change. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest is also thought to have fueled the growth of sargassum. As huge swathes of the rainforest are cut down, it is replaced with heavily fertilised farmland. The fertilizer ends up in the Amazon river and eventually in the Atlantic where it floods the ocean with nutrients such as nitrogen.’ 

Still, the sargassum ‘serves as an important breeding ground for turtle hatchlings and a refuge for hundreds of fish species. The problem comes when sargassum washes up on the beach and starts to rot… The stranded seaweed poses a serious threat to marine wildlife too. The huge piles of seaweed prevent turtles from nesting and ensnare dolphins and fish in the coral reefs. “Sargassum can suffocate coral reefs by covering them and decimate breeding grounds for turtles,” says Mike Allen, a marine scientist from the University of Exeter.’

But, why not just compost it, or feed it to animals like they do with ordinary seaweed? Well, go ahead -as long as you can stand the smell and it doesn’t contain too much salt, it may help to fertilize fields, apparently. It has also been tried as goat food, but it has to be cleaned first, so that’s a lot of work. And, I mean, you can’t just  let your average goat loose on a beach and expect it to stay there.

And yes, it can be converted into biofuel, but this, in itself is quite energy intensive; I suspect it’s going to take a while to figure out a better system.

But I’m sure there are a lot of adventurous chefs just waiting for a shipment. Unfortunately, although undoubtedly nutritious (I did not say delicious, you’ll note), it does not come prewashed, or pre-inspected, and so, although it is edible for the courageous, there are a lot of things stuck in it that might give one second thoughts -like, oh, bits of plastic, ground up glass particles, sundry unwanted crustaceans not to mention the larvae of jellyfish that can give you rashes or blisters, many unnamed and possibly double-agent bacteria that might find your personal microbiome overly attractive, and occasional hitchhiking blue-green algae which produce toxins. Oh yes, and did I mention that a 2019 article in the TC Palm (don’t ask) which reported that ‘Samples taken from Sargassum on some of Mexico’s Caribbean beaches had arsenic levels 60% higher than those permitted in food for humans and animals as well as heavy metal levels as high as 120 parts per million’? 

The hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg gas), however, seems to be one of the most serious and immediate problems. An article in the San Pedro Sun newspaper summarized the health concerns rather dispassionately I thought: ‘Repeated or prolonged exposure at low concentration levels can cause eye inflammation, headaches, fatigue, irritability and insomnia. Exposure to moderate concentration levels of hydrogen sulphide can result in severe eye irritation, severe respiratory irritation (coughing, difficulty breathing, and fluid in lungs), headache, and nausea, vomiting, and imbalance. Effects of exposure to high levels (100 ppm or higher) of hydrogen sulphide can be serious and life-threatening with effects that include shock, convulsions, inability to breathe, rapid unconsciousness, coma, and even death.’ I gather that non-chefs are not very happy with it on their beaches.

Still, there are several varieties of sargassum so, with a bit of luck and eagle eyes, one hopelessly forgiving culinary article I found suggested that ‘Sargassum seaweed is a nutritious food rich in carotenoids, cellulose, protein, and aspartic and glutamic acids. Sargassum seaweed contains polysaccharides, which support healthy bloody pressure and blood sugar. It has antibacterial and antioxidant properties.’ Personally, I have enough trouble with ordinary seaweed in salads, so also having to be on the lookout for fishing net fragments, or even shreds of three hundred year old canvas, would not be a particular attraction.

In fact, the romantic lore about spending an eternity trapped in the Sargasso Sea with dead horses floating all around, and waiting on tenterhooks to spot another ghost ship drifting in the distance, loses a lot in the telling . ‘In literature, it is often the site of mysterious communities cut off from the rest of the world, such as The Sargasso Ogre, where Elizabethan pirates are still said to live,’ says the Bermudian.

Right. It’s not at all the kind of compelling pirate adventure that would have interested me even when I was young and vulnerable. In fact, if I’d known the truth then, I think I would have gone on more blind dates… Okay, at least one, eh?

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