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Record amount of seaweed is choking shores in the Caribbean

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Near-record amounts of seaweed are smothering Caribbean coasts from Puerto Rico to Barbados, killing fish and other wildlife, choking tourism and releasing stinky, noxious gases.

More than 24 million tons of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic in June, shattering the all-time record, set in 2018, by 20%, according to the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab. And unusually large amounts of the brown algae have drifted into the Caribbean Sea.

A raggedy carpet of vegetation recently surrounded an uninhabited island near the French Caribbean territory of St. Martin that is popular with tourists, forcing officials to suspend ferry service and cancel kayaking, paddleboarding and snorkeling tours. The normally translucent turquoise waters around Pinel Island turned into a prickly yellowish-brown slush.

Oswen Corbel, owner of Caribbean Paddling, said he had to close his St. Martin business on July 22 and doesn’t expect to reopen until late October. He estimated he has lost at least $10,000.

“Maybe I should give up. … Sometimes I think I should go into the mountains and herd sheep, but this is what I know to do,” he said. “What’s next? We had Hurricane Irma, we had COVID, we had the sargassum, and now I’m pretty scared of global warming.”

Scientists say more research is needed to determine why sargassum levels in the region are so high, but the United Nations’ Caribbean Environment Program said possible factors include a rise in water temperatures as a result of climate change, and nitrogen-laden fertilizer and sewage that nourish the algae.

24 million tons of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic in June.
AP

“This year has been the worst year on record,” said Lisa Krimsky, a university researcher with Florida Sea Grant, a program aimed at protecting the coast. “It is absolutely devastating for the region.”

She said large masses of seaweed have a severe environmental impact, with the decaying algae altering water temperatures and the pH balance and leading to declines in seagrass, coral and sponges.

“They’re essentially being smothered out,” Krimsky said.

The “golden tide” also has hit humans hard.

The concentration of algae is so heavy in parts of the eastern Caribbean that the French island of Guadeloupe issued a health alert in late July. It warned some communities about high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas emanating from the huge rotting clumps of seaweed. The gas, which smells like rotten eggs, which can affect people with breathing problems such as asthma.

Caribbean seaweed
There is 20 percent more seaweed in the Atlantic now than in 2018 when the previous all time record was set.
AP

The Biden administration declared a federal emergency after the U.S. Virgin Islands warned last month of unusually high amounts of sargassum clogging machinery at a desalination plant near St. Croix that is struggling to produce water and meet demand amid a drought.

In addition, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ electricity generating station relies on ultra-pure water from the desalination plant to reduce emissions. The loss of such water would force the government to use a type of diesel fuel that is more expensive and in limited supply, officials said.

Chuanmin Hu, an oceanography professor at the University of South Florida who helps produce the seaweed reports, said sargassum levels for the eastern Caribbean were at a near-record high this year, second only to those reported in July 2018. Levels in the northern Caribbean are at their third-highest level, he said.

Experts first noted large amounts of sargassum in the Caribbean Sea in 2011, and the problem has occurred practically every year since then.

“We don’t know if this is a new normal,” Krimsky lamented.

Sargassum in moderation helps purify water and absorb carbon dioxide and is a key part of the habitat for fish, turtles, shrimp, crabs and other creatures. It is also used in fertilizer, food, biofuel, construction materials and medicinal products.

But it is bad for tourism and the environment when too much accumulates just offshore or on beaches.

“This is the worst we’ve ever seen it for sure,” said Melody Rouveure, general manager for a tour company in the Dutch Caribbean territory of St. Maarten, which shares an island with St. Martin. “It did ruin my personal beach plans.”

On Union Island, which is part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the seaweed invasion has forced some resorts in recent years to close for up to five months.

Masses of sargassum also have strangled the Caribbean’s fishing industry. It damages boat engines and fishing gear, prevents fishermen from reaching their vessels and fishing grounds and leads to a drop in the number of fish caught. Barbados, where the beaches are piled with reddish-brown seaweed, has been hit especially hard.

An overabundance of sargassum was blamed for the recent deaths of thousands of fish in the French Caribbean island of Martinique. It also has activists concerned about the plight of endangered turtles. Some are dying at sea, entangled in the seaweed or unable to lay their eggs because of the mat of algae over the sand.

In the Cayman Islands, officials launched a trial program in which crews pumped more than 2,880 square feet (268 square meters) of seaweed out of the water. But on Tuesday, the government announced it suspended the project, saying the seaweed had decomposed so much that it had rendered the pumping useless.

Some island nations use heavy machinery to remove seaweed from the beach, but scientists warn that causes erosion and can destroy the nests of endangered turtles.

Many Caribbean islands are struggling financially and do not have the means to clear the vast amounts of seaweed.

Gov. Albert Bryan of the U.S. Virgin Islands said he asked President Joe Biden to declare a federal emergency for the entire three-island territory, not just St. Croix, but that didn’t happen. Bryan said he is now trying to find local funds to clean beaches, “but a lot of things need money right now.”

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Georgia fugitive gets himself arrested after commenting on ‘most wanted’ post

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This is not a list most would ask to be on.

A Georgia man assisted law enforcement in his arrest after he commented on the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page.

When the sheriff’s department, located east of Atlanta, released their “Most Wanted List” for November, Christopher Spaulding appeared offended by the omission.

“How about me” Spaulding asked through his personal Facebook account.

The department was happy to reply on Thursday, saying, “you are correct you have two warrants, we are on the way.” 

Later on Thursday, Rockdale police shared an update to the bizarre exchange. Spaulding, wearing a red Georgia Bulldogs hoodie and hat, was apprehended and handcuffed.

The 40-year-old had two warrants for Felony Violation of Probation, according to police.

The Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office was happy to add Spaulding to the list.
Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office / Facebook

“We appreciate you for your assistance in your capture!” the department said in the post.

After Spaulding was taken into custody, the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office reminded wanted fugitives that being left off the “Most Wanted List” isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“Our Top 10 is compiled based off of the severity of the charges only. By not being on this list does not mean our Fugitive Unit is not looking for you if you have an active warrant.”

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Your Holiday Rituals

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“Our holiday ritual involves stretching buñuelos over cheesecloth on our bent knee. We use a secret family recipe that my older sister has yet to share. Everyone is involved in an assembly line according to expertise, mixing, forming testales, rolling out perfectly round tortillas, stretching, then frying to a golden color!” — Elma Cadena, San Antonio, Texas

“My family and I burn a yule log on the winter solstice. We find a weirdly shaped or very large hunk of wood, decorate it with twigs, berries, foliage and other items as we see fit, then we fasten a note or make a marking on the log indicating some intention we have for the coming year.” — Candace Abraham, Newport, Wash.

“I carry around one $100 bill to tip someone randomly. I go about my business and when I find that person who needs a pick-me-up, I plant the big bill as I normally would: in the hand of the hair dresser, jar at coffee shop, billfold for server. And don’t stick around for the reaction. Let them enjoy their surprise privately!” — Jackie Shapiro Brooker, Greenville, S.C.

“My husband’s family’s 20-plus-year tradition of a Christmas Eve dinner we call ‘mishy mashy.’ There is one rule: Every person must bring or make one food item that they want to eat. Anything is game, and no judgment allowed. Soft pretzels? Yum! Oyster soup? OK! Cheese shaped like reindeer that you just bought? Looks good!” — Jen Bowerman, Traverse City, Mich.

“When I was in my early 20s, we lost my 22-year-old brother to cancer just before Christmas. As a means of coping, my mom and I took a class where we constructed a gingerbread house completely from scratch. Over 40 years later, I continue to make one every Christmas season with my daughters.” — Beth Q. Reynolds, Hopkinton, Mass.

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US woman killed when ‘rogue wave’ strikes Antarctic cruise ship

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An American woman died and four other passengers were injured when a “rogue wave” hit a Viking cruise ship sailing near the southernmost tip of South America on an Antarctic cruise, the company said Thursday. 

The unidentified 62-year-old woman was hit by broken glass when the wave broke cabin windows on the Viking Polaris ship late Tuesday during a storm, Argentine authorities said. The ship suffered limited damage and arrived in Ushuaia, 1,926 miles south of Buenos Aires, the next day.

“It is with great sadness that we confirmed a guest passed away following the incident,” Viking said in a statement. “We have notified the guest’s family and shared our deepest sympathies.”

The four passengers injured were treated onboard the ship by a doctor and medical staff for non-life-threatening injuries, the company said. 

The ship itself sustained “limited damage,” Viking said. 

“We are investigating the facts surrounding this incident and will offer our support to the relevant authorities,” the company said. “Our focus remains on the safety and wellbeing of our guests and crew, and we are working directly with them to arrange return travel.”

Damage is seen on the bottom windows of the Viking Polaris ship after a wave hit it on Thursday.
AFP via Getty Images

Rogue waves, also known as “extreme storm waves” by scientists, are greater than twice the size of surrounding waves and often come unexpectedly from directions other than prevailing wind and waves, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Suzie Gooding, who was on the ship when the incident happened, told WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina, that it felt like the ship had struck an iceberg.

“Everything was fine until the rogue wave hit, and it was just sudden. Shocking,” she said. “We didn’t know if we should get our gear ready for abandoning ship.”

Viking said it has canceled the ship’s next scheduled departure, the Antarctic Explorer, slated to sail from Dec. 5-17. The Viking Polaris, a vessel that has luxury facilities and was built in 2022, has a capacity for 378 passengers and 256 crew members.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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