Sargassum is a unique marine algae that can complete its entire life cycle without ever attaching to a substrate. Instead, it drifts in ocean currents indefinitely and plays an important ecological role in the pelagic zone by providing shelter to small fish and invertebrates as a foundation species. In turn, it is a key foraging ground and nursery habitat for commercially important fish, marine turtles, seabirds. A number of factors such as elevated sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, and runoff have led to a proliferation of Caribbean sargassum in the last five years.
Unfortunately, sargassum also tends to accumulate marine debris like plastic within its entangled mass, increasing the chances of ingestion by fish and other organisms living there.
As this patchy and ephemeral habitat has yet to be studied in the Exuma Sound, its ecologicalcontribution to the larger food web remains to be understood in the face of a changing climate.
To inform the sustainable management of pelagic fisheries here in The Bahamas and wider Caribbean region, we hope to conduct a series of research projects that shed light on the following:
What species inhabit sargassum mats in the Exuma Sound? Are there any species of conservation interest (hatchling sea turtles, juvenile sportfish, etc.) in these communities?
What proportion of a sargassum mat is comprised of plastic or other marine debris? Have any associated animals ingested or become entangled in plastic?
What role do sargassum communities play in supporting the pelagic food web of this region? What is their importance in the open ocean and deep ocean relative to other sources of primary production from the nearby coastal and reef-associated ecosystems?