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5,000-Mile Seaweed Mass Moving Toward Florida; Coast Guard Fails to Punish Sex Assault on Merchant Ships; TikTok Implements Technical Safeguards to Ease Security Concerns. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired March 17, 2023 - 15:30   ET



BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: It's coming. The first smelly mass of seaweed is starting to wash ashore in the Florida Keys. The entire blob is about 5,000 miles. Now first perspective that's nearly twice the length of the United States.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: CNN's Leila Santiago is in Key West. It looks a mess behind you. I could only imagine what it smells like. What do we need to know?

LEILA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK. So, here's the thing, right now it doesn't smell too bad, because we're not seeing that much of this stuff coming here. Let me show you. This is the seaweed that's kind of washing up and this is a mix. But in this mix -- there it is right there; this is the particular seaweed that we're talking about here. Scientists have been tracking this since 2011. It could arrive in record numbers this year. And one scientist told me this could be a new normal.


JOE KAPLAN, RESIDENT, KEY WEST, FLORIDA: It's thick in the summertime builds up and smells terrible.

SANTIAGO (voice over): Joe Kaplan captured these images about a week ago, massive amounts of seaweed washing up at Smather's Beach, a beach he knows well, because he walks it several times a week.

KAPLAN: I was shocked when I saw it that day where it wasn't even spring yet. It's still winter, which is very unusual.

CHUANMIN HU, USF COLLEGE OF MARINE SCIENCE: And this is about a 5,000 mile long.

SANTIAGO (voice over): Professor Chuanmin Hu is one of the leading experts on what many have referred to as a massive blob of seaweed heading to Florida's coast.

SANTIAGO: Fair to call it a blob?

HU: Nope.

SANTIAGO: No, we can't call it a blob, OK.

HU: I would never call that a blob.


HU: Because he's not.

SANTIAGO (voice over): Satellite images, he says show it's not one massive body of seaweed, rather a bunch of patchy clumps traveling from West Africa. It's called the Atlantic sargassum belt and is considered a natural phenomenon. Right now, it's twice the width of the U.S. carrying 6 million tons of seaweed and headed to the East Coast.

HU: In June of this year, it may turn into 20 million tons.

SANTIAGO: So, let me get this straight. This what we're seeing the last month is 6 million tons and it's going to get bigger.

HU: Yes, there's no way to stop that. This is nature just like no one can stop a hurricane.

SANTIAGO: Should we be worried about that?

HU: Nope.


HU: Reason is sargassum is not toxic.

SANTIAGO (voice over): But it smells pretty bad and it's a nuisance for those trying to keep beaches clean to attract tourists just a few years ago. Here's what it looked like in Mexico. Officials in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, have set aside more than $200,000 to clean and remove sargassum from its beaches.

DAN MATTHEWS, MISS CHIEF FISHING CHARTERS: Seaweed is a mixed blessing. We need it. The seaweed is a nursery for all these large pelagic fish. The negative sides of that seaweed is if it comes in the concentrations that are believed we're going to see our fishing grounds are going to be completely covered with it. There's almost no point to fishing because we're going to be spending the entire day cleaning weed off our lines.


SANTIAGO (voice over): And as the sargassum belt heads toward Florida. Another natural phenomenon is already hitting its beaches on the West Coast. Red tide that can be toxic, kill fish and cause respiratory issues. This year's red tide concerns were enough to cancel at least one major event here in Indian Rocks were one family visiting told us --

MARGO SAGE, TOURIST FROM CANADA: As soon as my son and my husband and I got out of our car we all started coughing. SANTIAGO (voice over): But for spring breakers like this group from Iowa, the concerns of massive amounts of seaweed or red tide were not enough to change vacation plans.

ANNA SANDERS, TOURIST: I would rather it be red tide than raining every day.

SANTIAGO (voice over): Tourists noting friends back home.

SAGE: They'd be pretty jealous regardless of having a little bit of the red tide symptoms. They'd be pretty jealous that we're here and they're not.

SANTIAGO (voice over): Because the Pristine beaches of the Sunshine State are hard to resist for many, despite what may be looming offshore.


SANTIAGO (on camera): And Victor, Bianna, you know, one of the things that the scientist told me was there is still more research needed to truly understand what we see coming and here. They have a pretty good understanding. It's sort of the current and the movement, but they still don't have a great as to why it's more some years over other years. So, they need more funding to be able to research that. And hopefully one day be able to forecast that the same way they do hurricanes. So, then I asked the scientists, OK, so well what your best advice? And he said stay away from it -- Bianna, Victor.

GOLODRYGA: I guess that is some advice. Try to avoid it if you can. It was nice to see those beach goers at least making the most of their vacation.

Leila Santiago, thank you.

BLACKWELL: Thank you Leila.

GOLODRYGA: We'll be right back.



BLACKWELL: Now to a new CNN investigation which reveals a failure by the U.S. Coast Guard to protect its female service members. Two women have come forward alleging they were sexually assaulted on U.S. commercial ships that are overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard. But none of the cases has been prosecuted.

That's leading some to call it "The Maritime MeToo Movement," And it started by a blog post. CNN's chief investigative correspondent Pamela Brown has this story.



PAMELA BROWN, CNN CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hope Hicks was initially excited for her so-called sea year, spending months on a commercial ship as part of her program at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, but her excitement soon turned to terror.

HICKS: It was a very hostile environment. There were comments made towards me every single day and then two weeks in the physical touching started.

BROWN (voice-over): She says one night after the crew was drinking, she was raped by a superior officer.

HICKS: I woke up completely naked in my bed and my room was destroyed. My sheets were bloodied and I immediately knew what had happened.

BROWN (voice-over): In the middle of the Arabian Sea, the only woman on board, weeks away from land.

HICKS: I was scared out of my mind.

BROWN (voice-over): Her safety and those of the tens of thousands of people who work on commercial ships is overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard, which approves credentials for each crew member and investigates and punishes offenses.

But a CNN investigation found the Coast Guard has failed to use its power to prevent and punish sexual assault on commercial ships for decades.

HICKS: I had no idea that reporting to the Coast Guard was even an option.

BROWN (voice-over): This woman who wants to stay anonymous says she was repeatedly groped and harassed by a member of her crew on board the same ship just two years later.

MIDSHIPMAN Y, SEXUALLY HARASSED DURING SEA YEAR: Every joke, every innuendo, every touch always felt like a threat. I always slept with my knife, it felt like I was constantly hunted.

BROWN (voice-over): The Coast Guard has not revoked a single credential for a sexual assault at sea in the last decade. Yet it revokes credentials for other lesser offenses.

Case in point, last year a merchant mariner tested positive for marijuana during a random drug test. The Coast Guard acknowledged it was likely caused by CBD oil his doctor recommended for pain but permanently revoked his credential anyway.

CNN identified more than 25 mariners who held credentials even after they were convicted of sex crimes on land, though many have left the industry. Like Michael James Verdin, a registered sex offender who only had a seven-month suspension and continued working on a ship for five more years. And James Ryerse who pleaded guilty to attempted felony criminal sexual conduct. He was able to return to ship work after suspension of just six months.

Both men denied the allegations

MIDSHIPMAN Y: Oh, I'm pissed. I'm tired. I'm angry and I should be. I'm angry that the system didn't protect me at all. If anything, it suppressed me.

CAPTAIN ANN SANBORN, FORMER ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, USMMA: This is something that should have stopped decades ago.

BROWN (voice-over): Captain Ann Sanborn is former associate professor at the academy and the first female captain of a commercial ship.

SANBORN: I would describe my feelings on the U.S. Coast Guard as they have been absentee, intentionally naive.

BROWN (voice-over): There are no accurate numbers for how many people have been sexually assaulted on commercial ships. Victims are often bullied and belittled into silence.


HICKS: He was like we really need to talk and I told him, you forced yourself on me. And he told me that mariners get lonely at sea. And if I ever wanted to report, nobody would ever believe me.

SANBORN: They're told nobody is going to believe you. A lot of times they're right.

BROWN (voice-over): Hope Hicks wrote an anonymous blog post about her attack in 2021 and that sent shock waves through the industry.

HICKS: This problem is the most underreported problem, not enough people have come forward, not enough people have talked about it.

BROWN (voice-over): As for the man who allegedly attacked Hope, the Coast Guard turned over its investigation to the Department of Justice months ago but no charges have been filed. The Coast Guard renewed his credential last year.

BROWN: Well, after Hope Hicks' blog post, there is new focus on preventing sexual misconduct. The Coast Guard told my colleagues Blake Ellis, and Melonie Hicken that among the changes they have made it easier for people to report incidents at sea, and they're taking part in the new monitoring system with the FBI and TSA, which would alert them to mariners who have been convicted of certain crimes.

Pamela Brown, CNN, Washington.


GOLODRYGA: Very disturbing and very important report thing by Pamela and her team.

Well, markets are falling sharply after a volatile week on Wall Street as investors lose confidence in the banking sector. We'll have more on that just ahead.



GOLODRYGA: Well, TikTok's CEO is pushing back on the Biden administration's demand that the Chinese owned parent company either sell its stake in the U.S. version of the app or be banned.

BLACKWELL: The CEO tells "The Wall Street Journal" that selling the company does nothing to solve the administration's security concerns. CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy is with us. So, what's the CEO saying about the vulnerability of user data?

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: TikTok says that U.S. user data is totally safe. Now this is somewhat contradicted by some reporting we've seen in other outlets, but that's what they are saying.

They're in a very precarious position here though right now, Victor. They've been negotiating with the U.S. government for the past couple of years, trying to strike a deal in light of the national security concerns. Mainly around data protection and privacy issues to continue operating in the U.S.

They haven't been able to strike this deal. And now we are hearing that this committee that they're negotiating with has made the demand that they divest. The Chinese divest from the app in order to keep operating in the U.S.

Now for TikTok, they're saying this doesn't actually address any of the national security concerns that they've been working with the U.S. government on over the past few years. They put out a statement, a strong statement the other day when this reporting came to light.

And they said: If protecting national security is the objective, divestment does not solve the problem. A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access. And that they do want to say: The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, U.S.-based protection of U.S. data and systems with robust third-party monitoring, vetting and verification, which we are already implementing.

So, we'll see what happens here. But it seems -- at least right now -- that the U.S. government is not going to allow this company to continue operating unless there is a divestment.

GOLODRYGA: I believe the CEO is set to testify before Congress next week. I would imagine it grilling from both sides of the aisle.

DARCY: I imagine it's not going to be fun to be him when he goes in front of Congress next week. This is the first time he has testified in front of Congress. And so, I think it's going to be really interesting to see how he performs, and I think you're see a bipartisan effort to really grill him on the details regard this company and how it can move forward in the U.S. I mean, this has millions and millions of users in the U.S., so banning it is not going to be super easy either. So, we'll see what happens.

GOLODRYGA: Divesting is questionable, too. I be believe that the founders own like 20 percent of the company. I'm not sure what that would really bring in though. Oliver Darcy, thank you.

BLACKWELL: Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: GOLODRYGA: Well, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for allegedly deporting Ukrainian children. We're live from the Hague, next.



BLACKWELL: This week's "CNN Hero" opened a library in memory of her father who died during Guatemala's civil war. Brenda Lemus has since turned the place into a community center.

GOLODRYGA: Thousands of children living in extreme poverty can receive food and school supplies there. Here's Brenda.


BRENDA LEMUS, FOUNDER, BERNARDO LEMUS MENDOZA LIBRARY (through translated text): the children come to the library looking how to do homework because they don't have the resources at home. The parents don't know how to read. They began to come with that desire to get ahead. Then, I began to realize that there were more obstacles that impede them from studying. We provide educational opportunities and the tools so that they can break the cycle of poverty. We now have children who say they want to be engineers or that they want to be chemists.

We are hundreds of people involved. We give to people love, respect and dignity.


BLACKWELL: To find out how Brenda has helped her community, go to And while you're there, nominate your hero.

Here's what I love about this. Is that she was flexible and nimble with her vision, with her dream. She did this great thing by dedicating a library to her father. And then said, you know what? They need something else here and then opened it up to the community.

GOLODRYGA: Think about how many children she's impacted, right. Not only by providing them with nourishment but care, right, and learning opportunities.

BLACKWELL: Yes, good Brenda, good work.


BLACKWELL: So, this is my last show in this time slot. I'm not leaving. I am leaving New York and going to Atlanta. I'm going to be returning to what is now "CNN THIS MORNING" and launching a new show later this year, a solo show.


So, this is the end of one chapter, the beginning of the next. But I'm still here with CNN.

GOLODRYGA: I selfishly was dreading this moment because I'm so excited -- and we all are -- about the future for you in Atlanta.

BLACKWELL: You know I'm excited.

GOLODRYGA: I know you're excited. You never hide your excitement.

BLACKWELL: I am excited.

GOLODRYGA: But I have loved getting to know you and spending time with you and becoming friends. You make me laugh. I look forward to our time together.

BLACKWELL: Sometimes on air.

GOLODRYGA: I loved watching you with Alyson. So, I know from all of us behind the camera and everyone here at CNN are wishing you well. I will miss you sitting next to me though, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Likewise, thank you Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: All right.