I’m Jess Wardlaw, Community Science Programme Developer at the Museum. I’m excited to be working together with my Museum colleagues, Juliet Brodie, Lucy Robinson and Ana Benavides Lahnstein, on a new international partnership project funded by the British Academy’s Knowledge Frontiers programme.
Alongside partners at the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI) and the Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores (ENES) from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in Merida, Mexico, we are excited to be taking our Big Seaweed Search community science project to new shorelines…Mexico’s Caribbean and Yucatán coasts, which are part of the Yucatán Peninsula!
The impact of surplus seaweed on coastal communities
Both coasts are a magical mixture of beaches, seagrass beds, coral reefs, mangroves and jungle, which supports not only a wide variety of wildlife but also livelihoods of local communities in the region.
However, since 2011, the brown seaweed, Sargassum, has been blanketing the beaches mainly in the Caribbean. It is hypothesised that this is due to climate change and increased fertilizer runoff from North America and the Amazon basin, which supplies nutrients that make it grow uncontrollably. Such is the volume of seaweed in Mexico that it is negatively affecting local economic activities such as tourism.
Interviews already carried out in Mexico by our project lead from NRI found out about local initiatives that produce innovative uses for the excess of beachcast biomass; for example bricks for houses and fertiliser. Nevertheless, the main strategy has been to “clean the beaches” and throw the biomass in the jungle or bury it.
Seaweeds have a reputation for being smelly and slimy, but they’re actually unsung superheroes, with marine algae producing over 70% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. They are also being farmed to produce biofuels, fertiliser and animal feed.
However, when they wash ashore in enormous volumes, like the so-called “golden tides” on the Mexican Caribbean coast, they damage coral reefs, seagrass communities and turtle nesting sites, as well as industries such as tourism, fisheries and wild seaweed harvesting elsewhere on the Yucatán coast.
One strand of work within Big Seaweed Search Mexico (BSS Mx) is engaging coastal communities in a community science programme to systematically collect (Figure 1) and identify (Figure 2) seaweed species to know the diversity and abundance of these and propose responsible management strategies.
Working with young people
Earlier this year, Juliet and Ana visited our Mexican colleagues to better understand the local context and to share knowledge with our colleagues. Scientists from UNAM have since started to collaborate with young people in two ports (Sisal, Yucatan and Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo) to identify and register 12 to 29 species of seaweed and seagrasses, which are commonly found on their local beaches.
These young people participated in a week-long workshop that covered not only seaweed identification, but also the benefits they bring to human life, their potential uses and their importance within the wider local marine system. This would help participants to understand and face the environmental and socio-economic challenges created by, for example, the “golden tides”, in their region.
This community science approach has the benefit of supporting collaboration between scientists and members of the public. For example, our Mexican colleagues have collated questions that participants have about the seaweed when they first arrive on the beach and encounter it.
We are still processing their questions, but we have been blown away by their engagement, and their questions will feature in a future blog. Their observations meet a demand for routine monitoring of seaweed and seagrasses in the region, and already include species previously unrecorded in the region.
BSS-Mx builds on existing partnerships at the Museum:
- Big Seaweed Search (BSS) UK (https://www.nhm.ac.uk/take-part/citizen-science/big-seaweed-search.html) is a community science project that supports scientific research on the impacts of sea temperature rise, non-native species and ocean acidification on seaweeds along the British coastline. Anyone can take part, by recording the distribution and abundance of UK seaweeds. BSS-Mx will adapt BSS to a new ecological environment, and cultural and socio-economic context.
- LEARN CitSci was an international partnership between educational researchers and community science practitioners at natural history museums. The team studied young people participating in BSS to understand how participation in community science can develop young people’s sense of agency to act on environmental issues that matter to them. BSS Mexico builds on this by implementing the lessons learned and applying them to a new context.