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Opinions Differ on Whether Sargassum Causes Health Issues

Although a British Virgin Islands environmentalist, Cassander Titley-O’Neal, warned recently that swallowing large doses of water where sargassum seaweed is present could be fatal, other experts don’t agree.

“It’s no more than an irritant to the skin,” said Debi Forrest, an education coordinator at the Poison Control Center in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday.

She said people swimming at beaches with sargassum should shower afterwards to help prevent any rashes.

Forrest said the agency has received no complaints about issues concerning sargassum.

Health Department spokeswoman Astia LeBron also said the department hasn’t received any information about people getting sick from sargassum.

“The biggest complaint is the smell,” she said, adding that swimming in the ocean remains safe.

A sargassum fact sheet from the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute indicates that decomposing sargassum is not toxic to humans. It also said that sargassum does not sting.

Titley-O’Neal is the director of the BVI-based consulting company Environmental Systems. Reached by phone, she said she would forward the full text of an email she sent to the BVI online newspaper, www.virginislandsnewsonline.com, expressing her concerns about sargassum.

The forwarded text did not arrive by press time, but Titley-O’Neal said she told the BVI newspaper hydrogen sulfide is released into the water from the sargassum. She said oral ingestion of some sulfides has been reported to cause nausea, vomiting and epigastric pain as well as an irritant to the mucous membranes.

According to Titley-O’Neal, it has been estimated that an oral dose of 10 to 15 grams of sodium sulfide would be fatal to humans.

Remarks by Titley-O’Neal come on the heels of a fish kill in Coral Bay as well as similar incidents in the British territory.

However, V.I. National Park Superintendent Jayne Schaeffer said the park has not had any reports of fish kills in its waters.

Kent Bernier Jr. at the Planning and Natural Resources Department, who heads the territory’s sargassum task force, went by boat Monday to Coral Bay to investigate the issue. He said the dead fish and the sargassum weed that had been piled up along the Coral Bay shoreline last week were gone.

He said it was present on the island’s southside at Lameshur Bay, however.

Bernier said he took a water sample in Coral Bay but the results are not yet available.

He said the high amount of sulfur in the water from the sargassum is also turning boat bottoms black.

LeBron, who said she majored in environmental studies at college, said the sargassum “sucks up” the oxygen in the water, which causes fish to die.

The park’s beaches, like many others, do have sargassum problems. The park’s website has an entire page devoted to the issue and notes that the sargassum will eventually wash out to sea or decompose.

On Monday, the BVI government sent out a press release about the sargassum and dead fish issue.

Acting Deputy Chief Conservation and Fisheries Officer Mervin Hastings said the sargassum blocks the penetration of sunlight, which reduces oxygen production by seaweed and other photosynthetic organisms in the water. After the sargassum dies, the decomposition of the weed uses up the oxygen in the water column thus causing the marine life to die, he said.

Both the press release and the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute fact sheet indicates that sargassum seaweed provides a nursery for over 120 species of fish and invertebrates and provides protection similar to that of a mangrove.

Hastings said the seaweed is an important nursery habitat that provides shelter and food for endangered species such as sea turtles and for commercially important species of fish such as tuna and mahi-mahi.

Hastings said the seaweed is a natural occurrence and that it is believed that the recent influx is related to massive sargassum blooms occurring in particular areas of the Atlantic and is not directly associated with the Sargasso Sea. 

Hasting added there is a possibility that sargassum seaweed being washed along the territory’s shoreline can become a more frequent occurrence for the Caribbean region. He said the bloom this year has been attributed to high sea surface temperatures and higher nutrient levels, among other factors. 

Hasting said average sea surface temperatures are also expected to rise over time as a part of the global climate change phenomenon and the Eastern Caribbean is in the process of using remote sensing satellite systems to track the arrival of sargassum seaweed in the region.   

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