“Known unknowns…Unknown Unknowns..” of Sea Weed Invasion



“Known unknowns…Unknown Unknowns..” of Sea Weed


“…(As we) know, there are known knowns; there are things we

know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is

to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there

are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't

know…” – United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,


As far as the causes and consequences of the “sea weed

invasion” of Lumley Beach are concerned, they are largely

‘known unknowns’. This past Friday, June 17, 2016, I went to

Lumley Beach, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, with Professor

Percival A.T. Showers of the Institute of Marine Biology &

Oceanography, Department of Biological Sciences, Fourah Bay

College, University of Sierra Leone. To witness the “sea weed

invasion” there!! Lumley Beach could rank among the top 1% of

beautiful beaches in the world. But, the idyllic beach has been (is

being) made ugly: covered by brownish and yellowish “sea


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“Ecological catastrophe” ongoing at Lumley Beach

Prof. Showers called the sea weed invasion an “ecological

catastrophe”. In a 2014 Paper prepared by Prof. Showers, he

warned that “something of grave ecological significance in

alarming proportions has started on the coasts of Sierra

Leone”. What is the solution? “heightened awareness”… AND

“intensified research”. To know about the unknowns!!. Well, we

know something about the sea weed.

Seaweeds, according to Prof. Showers, “ are marine macroalgae

or plant-like organisms”. The ones that have “invaded” Sierra

Leone have come from South America. They have come from an

area of awesome vastness – 5.2 million square kilometers of

ocean space called ‘the Sargasso Sea’ in the North Atlantic.

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The Sargasso Sea hosts a considerably high biodiversity rich

area – playing host to a diverse assemblages of fish, shell fish

(shrimps, crabs, lobster, etc.), reptiles (sea turtles) and other

living organisms.

Prof. Showers writes that “….The drifting of Sargassum traces a

trans-Atlantic route connecting Brazil and Sierra Leone…” (Brazil

and Sierra Leone have historic connection –for over three

hundred years between the 15 th century and the 19 th centuries

African slaves were taken from places like Sierra Leone across

the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, and the Americas). At Lumley

Beach, Prof. Showers said “we have been expecting the sea

weeds this year. They are late in coming. But, they have now

arrived WITH A BANG”. The sea weed started invading in

2011. Every year since then, during the Rainy Season, the sea

weed would stage their invasion. Already, at just “Intensity-2”

level, there are “five tonne of sea weed on the beach”, Prof.

Showers said.

“Scientists all over the world are alarmed” by sea weed


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Brian Lapointe, a sargassum expert at Florida Atlantic University,

US, calls the profusion of sargussum as “harmful algal blooms” .

Why? “They can wipe out fish populations”. Fishermen could

not be able to catch fish. Were fish populations to be wiped out in

Sierra Leone, it would be like committing mass murder against

70% of the population: Sierra Leoneans get over 90% of their

protein needs from fish. Worse, these sea weeds can cause

“coastal dead zones”.

Prof. Showers writes that “This phenomenon points to some

major upset in the marine ecology of the entire Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists all over the world are alarmed by these events and

desperate measures are being exerted to combat it…”

Jeff Ardron, Director of the High Seas Program for the Marine

Conservation Institute in Washington, US, who has been tracking

the issue since 2011, said “something serious is afoot.”

What is “afoot” we don’t know. What is “known known” could be

this: Prof. Showers writes that the “ year 2011 had been marked

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by unusual weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, ranging

from extreme cold to extreme heat.”

And, the Sierra Leonean academic touches on something which

other experts are muted about: “The preceding year, 2010, had

recorded one of the greatest marine ecological disasters in history

– the Gulf of Mexico oil spill”. This could be a culprit. Petroleum

companies exploiting oil in Mexico!

Sea weed could manifest “Climate Change” on the oceans

The sea weed invasion is also being linked to the Biggest

Thing of our generation: Climate Change. Oceans are

warming. This could cause changes in ocean currents. Another

thing: people are chopping down the forests in the Amazon in

Brazil, and other tropical rainforest countries in the Americas –

for timber for furniture; for agriculture, for cows to feed the mostly

over-fed people in the US. This causes massive soil erosion.

The top soils rich in nutrients flow to the ocean. The ‘sea weeds’

in the ocean have ‘new abundant’ food. They grow aplenty. The

ocean currents bring the sea weeds to West Africa.

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According to Showers, in 2011, scientists felt the sea weed

invasion was a “freak of nature”. But, there was an invasion in

2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015; and now, 2016, ‘the sea weed

invaders’ are back…. Prof. Showers was tasked to highlight the

“meteorological and oceanographic influences which have

previously not been addressed in such clear context from an

oceanographic perspective”. He has to study “the dynamics of

the monsoons and the periodicity of the ITCZ”… Look, forget that

science talk. Just give support to whatever that needs to be done

by scientists like Prof. Showers. So that Prof. Showers can do

longer-time- series of assessments to get a “deeper understanding

of the (sea weed) scenario” . Don’t dare to think this does not

concern you. And, get scared when a scientist like Prof. Showers

writes: “Something terrible seems to have gone amiss to cause

such gigantic upheaval in the entire ecosystem of the north

central Atlantic…”. Something TERRIBLE!! What is it? We don’t

know. It is an unknown unknown!! What we know is that….

The bad things about sea weed invasion

Countries like Trinidad and Tabago, Bermuda in the Caribbean that

depend heavily on tourism have had their beaches defaced by the sea

weeds – like at Lumley Beach. Sierra Leone’s beach-dependent

tourism industry blighted by the Ebola enemy is now being given a

worse hit by the sea weed invasion. Sea weeds are not poisonous,

but they collect floating garbage, which can pose a health or

environmental risk. When the sea weeds decomposed in water, they

can promote blooms of harmful bacteria/microbes, resulting in serious

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skin irritation. One of the marketing thrusts for the beaches of Sierra

Leone is that the oceans before them have warm water. They are

excellent for swimming. But, if the sea weeds scare people off the

ocean in Sierra Leone..!!

The good things about sea weeds

The sea weed Sargassum is not that all bad. Sea weeds can be

eaten by human beings. You can fry it, boil it, steam it. It can

also be harvested to feed animals like cows. CAUTION: Prof.

Showers said that the sea weeds at Lumley Beach are “too tough”

to be eaten though, “because they need to be tough to survive the

journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Brazil…” Note also: sea

weeds are not only those that have come from across the Atlantic

Ocean. Some species of sea weeds are native to West Africa. In

Nigeria, they are doing studies to explore the option of GROWING

sea weeds – like you grow rice.

Sea weeds can also be used for medicines. Almost two thousand

years ago, the Chinese were using sea weeds to cure diverse

diseases. Nigeria is experimenting with this today.

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This information is found in the Paper titled, “The potentials and

utilization of Seaweeds” by J.F.N. Abowei and E. N. Ezekie of the

Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Niger Delta

University, Wilberforce Island, Bayelsa State, Nigeria and Department

of Science laboratory Technology, School of Applied Science, Rivers

State Polytechnic, Bori, Rivers State, Nigeria respectively

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The sea weeds provide homes for fishes and other invertebrates.

A study sponsored by UNEP indicates at least “127 species of

fish and 145 invertebrate species have been associated with the

presences of Sargassum algae”. Of these species, 10 are known

to be endemic to West Africa’s ecosystem. It is hardly a

wonder the sea weed invasion is being heavily

internationalized. The West African nations affected by the sea

weed invasion met in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 2014 to strategize.

They concluded that they would include Sargassum on the 2nd

United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) agenda as

part of the now touted Sustainable Development Goals. The

objective for bringing Sargassum at the level of the United

Nations Environment Assembly is to draw attention of the wider

environment community on the severe impacts of Sargassum in

West Africa and the Wider Caribbean States, mobilize required

resources for regional programmes to address this new global

environmental phenomenon with emphasis on “inclusive green-

economy opportunities” which has the potential to contribute in

achieving UNEP’s global environmental mandate.

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Sea weed invasion means radical change to science mindset

in Africa

The sea weed invasion is another harbinger of what Climate

Change could mean for Africa. All Africa’s leaders must now

squelch that inclination of Africans to think in superstitious and

irrational ways. We must find ways to popularize science, and

make famous, scientists like Prof. Percival Showers. We

must retune how we think of religion and science. Pope Francis

last year said that science and Christianity are the same. Islamic

scholars a few centuries after the death of Prophet Mohamed

were the trailblazers of science in the world. In African countries

like Sierra Leone, we disdain science. Even in our universities,

we have laboratories LESS EQUIPED than, say, labs in primary

schools in countries like Singapore. We don’t encourage the

teaching of science in schools. We have relegated our science

teachers at all levels of our educational systems to the ranks of

the ‘Middle Class Poor’. Prof. Showers calls the sea weed

invasion an “ecological enigma” which has to be addressed by

science – all science is, at the beginning, enigmatic. Africans are

being urged to seek for the “unknown unknowns”….. Tropical

rainforest countries like Sierra Leone have species which are

about 60% of the global total – yet, with little science, we don’t

know what these plants and animals can do to help humanity

survive. ‘Going science’ is one of the paradigm shift Africans

must make today; as the ‘Climate Change wars’ ahead could be

tougher for Africa than the fight against European colonialism of

Africa and Apartheid put together. I PAUSE….

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