Sargassum – collaborating to conserve the British Virgin Islands

Since the moment I set eyes on the British Virgin Islands, I have loved this most beautiful part of the world. The turquoise water and pristine sandy beaches, the wildlife, the freedom, the people – since buying Necker Island back in 1978 the BVI has been both my home and my paradise. 

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Sadly though, over the last three years, alarming levels of Sargassum - an invasive brown seaweed – have been deposited on the BVI’s coastal shores. The eldest community members have said that these are the highest levels in living memory. Sargassum is most useful when it is out at sea. But when it hits the shore in large quantities it clogs the beach up, stops baby turtles reaching the ocean, and has very negative effects on other marine species. It also impacts public health and the Islands’ tourism industry. Some of my team living in Virgin Gorda have already experienced fresh water shortages due to Sargassum closing the desalination plant.

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Dr. Pickering, Deputy Premier of the BVI, and I regularly discuss the challenges the BVI is facing with Sargassum, both on an economic and environmental level. It was during one of these conversations that the idea of running a regional workshop on Sargassum was born. The challenge was to find a way of stopping Sargassum hitting the beaches in a cost-effective way. Then, to see if we could put Sargassum to good use. If we could utilise the Sargassum, then the cost of putting up barriers would become economically viable. 

Richard Branson at BVI Sargassum conference

Last month Virgin Unite and the BVI Government held a Regional Conference on Sargassum on Moskito Island – in partnership with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Caribbean Council and the OECS. We were joined by Dr. Pickering, BVI Governor John Duncan, BVI Premier Dr Orlando Smith, and an incredible group of experts and businesspersons from the OECS region and beyond to try to find solutions and see if entrepreneurial jobs could be created. There was one young entrepreneur who has managed to turn it into a liquid fertiliser, which looked very promising. Another entrepreneur thinks it could be turned into plastic due to its high sugar content. Perhaps most exciting of all, others feel it could be turned into fish and/or animal feed.

Richard Branson at BVI Sargassum conference

The conference was an incredible success, with discussions attesting once again that the challenge of conserving the beauty and economic power of the Caribbean goes beyond what we can do as individuals. It takes a collaborative approach – and it requires cooperation and partnerships from all of us – from government, business and conservation groups. At Virgin Unite we believe entrepreneurial solutions have a large role to play in restoring the Caribbean environment and growing the economy. In Jamaica we built the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, and we have now launched the BVI Centre too. They are fostering a generation of brilliant entrepreneurs, many of whom see the link between a healthy environment and their growing business.

Richard Branson at BVI Sargassum conference

At the end of the conference we agreed to get Sargassum analysed thoroughly and see which of these ideas could work. I’m hopeful that wonderful new opportunities for entrepreneurs could be created by solving the Sargassum problem. Instead of hearing people cursing when they see Sargassum coming their way, hopefully one day soon it will be thought of as a blessing for the region.

Richard Branson at BVI Sargassum conference

We all have a responsibility to be good stewards of the ocean and ensure that all steps in regards to cleaning or collection of Sargassum are done in an environmentally-friendly way. 

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It may not be the most high-profile of global conservation issues, but getting on top of this problem will make an enormous difference. I am very passionate about conserving the wonder and beauty of this region. I want to make sure that this special place, with all of mother nature’s beauty, is here for my children, grandchildren and future generations to support, protect and enjoy. 

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