One of Mexico's most important sources of employment and revenue, and the world's second largest coral reef chain, are under threat from constant bombardment by invasive seaweed.
Since 2011, a huge raft of free-floating seaweed has been growing every summer in the Atlantic Ocean. The seaweed, called Sargassum, can be identified by small air sacs which help it to float. Favourable conditions and run-off from North America cause it to grow out of control and currents carry the biomass to Caribbean shorelines where it can have devastating effects for local habitats and communities. The largest annual raft is named the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt (GASB) which stretches from Mexico to the west coast of Africa and is over 8500km in length. In 2018, the GASB was made up of over 20 million tonnes of biomass!
Although the biomass creates essential habitats at sea, the story is different once the Sargassum blows inshore suffocating the worlds second largest coral reef, seagrass beds and covering turtle nesting sites.
Tourism contributes to 17.6% of Mexico's GDP and 17% of jobs in the country. Fifty percent of Mexico's tourism income is generated in its Caribbean coast and the government are predicting an annual decrease (30%) in tourism due to the unsightly seaweed decimating the otherwise pristine beaches which attract tourists to the area. Current clean-up costs are estimated at >$100M.
The overall aim of this project is to test the feasibility of using sub-critical water processing methods in the conversion of Mexico's problematic seaweed bloom biomass into agricultural fertiliser and assess the sustainability of production using invasive and non-invasive macroalgae.
The project's interdisciplinary consortium incorporates UK and Mexico biological, ecosystem management and chemical engineering expertise. Our previous Newton funded project successfully developed a microalgae-based biostimulant product, enabling more sustainable crop growth enhancement for Mexico's growing agricultural industry. This new project takes much of these learnings and expertise (product testing, optimisation and development) and applies them to solving Mexico's macroalgae problem.
Working with other researchers and organisations, we aim to develop a process that removes the damaging seaweed and transform a highly costly problem into a valuable and sustainable agricultural product. This will have a positive impact for Mexico's important tourism industry as well as its marine ecosystem. Furthermore, this technology will contribute to Mexico's, still small but established, macroalgae industry and provide important information to inform industry policies and regulations. We are also proud members of the Sargasso Sea Commission who are working to further research and protect the, globally important, Sargasso Sea.
You can follow the progress of the project on our blog or over on twitter.