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Rugulopteryx okamurae: The Invasive Seaweed from Asia

Soraya Fernandez

With its unpronounceable name, this seaweed has crept into our lives, and worse still, into our marine ecosystem, causing an environmental disaster of epic proportions. Almost all the Straits of Gibraltar’s rocky seabed is already carpeted with it.

Originating from Asia, the algae ‘Rugulopteryx okamurae’ has puzzled scientists by its sheer invasiveness. It was first detected in 2015 and since then, its onslaught has been brutal.

Asian Seaweed Strait of Gibraltar Tarifa
Masses of Rugulopteryx okamurae seaweed wash up at Baños de Claudia, Bolonia 2019| ©Fran Montes, ReachExtra

Rugulopteryx okamurae has found a perfect home in the Straits of Gibraltar and has become an unprecedented problem for the local marine ecosystem, artisanal fishing, and for tourism. Fishermen are hauling in their nets, only to find them full of this seaweed. Catches have also decreased dramatically and, in some cases, even disappeared. As for its effects on the local tourism offering, many beaches in Campo de Gibraltar and Ceuta have been dealing with the pervasiveness of this seaweed for years, with thousands of tonnes accumulating on the beaches and presenting a serious threat to the tourism sector.

ReachExtra spoke to the experts who indicated that although Gibraltar has not been spared the infestation, it not been as pervasive or as regular when compared with the images coming from the coasts of Tarifa and Algeciras. The removal of the seaweed from beaches is also a tremendous cost to those affected municipalities.

Rugulopteryx Okamurae
Rugulopteryx okamurae seaweed at a beach in Tarifa 2019| ©Fran Montes, ReachExtra

ReachExtra wanted to learn more about the current situation and what solutions are being considered to tackle the invasion. To get a better understanding of this developing issue, we spoke to José Carlos García Gómez, professor of Marine Biology at the University of Sevilla who has been carrying out research for a year and a half with the support of the Cepsa Foundation.

José Carlos García Gómez, professor of Marine Biology at the University of Sevilla

The results are already in for the first phase of this four year study, and they’re devastating and discouraging to say the least: The proliferation of this species of algae is now classified as “explosive” and the invasion has already affected Andalusian coasts from Sancti Petri in Cádiz to Almería. In addition, it already occupies 80% of the flat rocky bottoms surfaces of of the Straits of Gibraltar, as well as a large part of the vertical surfaces which are exposed to sunlight.

A Possible Medicinal By-Product

Rugulopteryx Okamurae Seaweed Tarifa

“The study is currently in a very interesting phase, in which there are many possibilities for pharmacists as a potential drug to treat tumours; or its reuse as compost. This summer will see the commencement of a program of measuring physical-chemical parameters in water to detect the nutrients that create the miracle that this species is able to take advantage of so well, and in a way that the rest of the native algae are not able to do. That is a fascinating mystery to me and may hold the key,” explains García.

Rugulopteryx okamurae seems to have found its ideal home in the Straits of Gibraltar. The level of its growth and expansion is not occurring elsewhere at this speed, as recognized by this scientist. “I am fascinated by this topic because other invasive algae have established themselves throughout the Straits over time, as has been the case in other parts of the world, but what this is doing is impressive. It is unprecedented. The most similar case may be that of another seaweed, sargassum in the Caribbean”, he indicated.

Fertilization and global warming could be behind this phenomenon, García added, although this is only a hypothesis for now.

ReachExtra also interviewed Antonio Vegara, a professor of Entrepreneurial Culture of Sea Algae in the Straits at the SEPER on-going education program in Tarifa (Cádiz) and member of the “Mesa Ciudadana contra el Alga Invasora de Tarifa” (The “Citizens’ Association against the Invasive Algae of Tarifa”. Vegara doesn’t mince his words when it comes to this issue: “This is an absolute environmental crisis.”

Vegara, like García Gómez, acknowledges that Gibraltar is not unaffected by stranger to this serious problem and told us that the Gibraltarian government also has a monitoring system at a depth of about 17 meters with a camera that records 24 hours a day that confirms it.

“Gibraltar is also affected by this invasive seaweed. Although in 2015 and 2016, scientists thought that, due to the sea levels around the Rock and the temperature changes, the algae was going to be contained and its growth would slow down… this was not so, quite the opposite. I know that in Gibraltar there is also concern regarding this issue, although the seaweed does not get washed up there in such large quantities, perhaps due to the dynamics of the coastline,” he explains.

Regarding the Strait of Gibraltar, he maintains that the carpeting component of this species is already 100% at 20 meters deep, and 90% at 50 meters. “The inshore artisanal fishing sector is already even ruling out certain fishing gears,” he adds.

Criticism of the official reaction

José Carlos García Gómez stands in front of masses of washed up seaweed

Vegara is also highly critical of the way in which the Andalusian government, and that of Spain, have managed this problem: “From my perspective, they’re moving forward in an with an unusual, weird and malicious lack of coordination. Each is going their own way despite the fact that there is a technical committee under the Ministry of Ecological Transition that was created in September last year and that should have already arbitrated urgent measures. Almost a year later, joint committee is still to define strategies to follow”.

On July 17, a Council of Mayors of the most affected municipalities, such as the Algeciras, La Linea, Tarifa, Chiclana, Vejer and Barbate, will also be established in Tarifa, to try to analyse the situation and demand actions.

Another advance will be the declaration by the Government of Spain of the Rugulopteryx okamurae as an invasive species, a process that is already well on its way and will allow, among other measures, to allocate aid for the victims, such as fishermen.

The Invasive Seaweed Association also calls for the reuse of this seaweed, as the Strait Seaweed Association is already doing, for which it proposes that it not be treated as a waste but rather be valued for cosmetic, dermatological or composting use, for example.

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