The sargassum seaweed has been arriving all along the Mexican “Rivera Maya” Caribbean coast since January. The summer months from June-August however, saw unprecedented amounts. By late July an estimated 128,000 cubic meters had been removed from the beaches. Thousands more remained on uncleaned beaches reaching as far down as the mangroves in the Sian Kh'an biosphere. Health risks, canceled reservations, ecological pollution to both sea and land and a post-election crisis, only add fuel to the already Quintana Roo state declared emergency.

It’s an image of decay and it smells close to death. The 190 kilometers of the pristine clear blue waters of the Mexican Caribbean from Cancun to Chetumal have been flooded by tide after tide of sargassum seaweed. As it arrives on the shores and begins to decompose, its color goes from yellow to red to brown to black, releasing acrid noxious gases that produce a stench permeating the air as far as the highway. The sargassum has arrived in an unprecedented amount but foreseeable.


Sargassum, which originates in the Sargasso Sea, east of the North American coast began arriving in 2011. Quantities were small and occurred for short periods at a time. However, an increasing outbreak began in 2014 but 2015 was especially strong. Locals then were shocked by the enormous quantities that inundated their bays and beaches on and off during the summer. This year, its arrival began hitting the coastline in January and it has not stopped. The prospect, according to the College of Marine Science at the University of Florida is that it will be around at least until October.


The Sargasso Sea is the only sea not bordered by land. Its extremities are instead defined by the ocean currents that sweep around it and contain it. Floating rafts of sargassum can stretch for miles across the ocean. This floating habitat, of leafy appendages, branches and round berry-like structures (filled mostly with oxygen) provides food, refuge, and breeding grounds for an array of fishes, sea turtles, marine birds, crabs, shrimp, and more. The Sargasso Sea however is under threat, as it is being cut up by crisscrossing cargo ships that are increasing in tonnage year by year; more and more trawlers are dragging long lines and gill nets through its water; and the currents that circle the sea now trap vast amounts of plastic waste at its center.


In detriment of the problem, the Quintana Roo state governor Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez has declared a state of emergency and sought help from the federal government to clean the coasts and prevent the seaweed from arriving any further, after more than 128,000 cubic meters of seaweed have been removed from 41 beaches. Tourism in the area has seen business declaring foul for both the high and low seasons, with some estimating losses of up to 40%. Numerous hotels from Cancun to Tulum have seen cancellations. The state will now invest $10.5 million dollars to install ecological barriers along specific points, mostly south of Cancun like Punta Nizuc, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Mahahual and Puerto Morelos.


The onslaught however has created a sea of doubts and misinformation. The number one popular myth is that the seaweed turns to sand. Hotels in an effort to clean their beaches have hired local workers to clean the beaches with pitchforks and wheelbarrows only to dump the seaweed in vacant lots nearby or bury the seaweed in the sand. Environmentalists have cried foul, concerned that the numerous acids released by the seaweed as it decomposes will contaminate the aquifers, located a few meters below the surface.  Gisela Maldonado, biologist and specialist on sea turtles at the Technological Institute of Cancun wants to see further studies before beach makeup work is done. The removal of the seaweed already stationed at the beaches, by heavy machinery, will only be an extension to the continuous erosion of the beaches, already degraded by hurricanes and overdevelopment.


Dutch researcher Brigitta Ine Van Tussenbroek, at the Academic Unit of the Reef Systems Unit of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) based in Puerto Morelos, 38 km south of Cancun, has been quoted in the media widely, due to the lack of scientific experts on sargassum in Mexico. While the media focus on the deteriorated image of the beaches, Van Tussenbroek, believes it’s more of a health problem. She says the arrival of such large quantities is due to the excesses of nutrients reaching the sea from rivers, due to deforestation. This excess allows the sargassum biomass to duplicate in twenty days, even while drifting at sea. The researcher pointed out that the algae releases sulfuric acid that causes allergies, and some microorganisms that live in them are also toxic to the skin. Sargassum near the shorelines across the Caribbean has already caused the death of fish, octopuses, sharks; along with sea turtles that cannot reach their spawning sites, while their offspring now find one more obstacle to reach the sea.


Van Tussenbroek emphasizes that, “For the quantities of sargassum that have reached these coasts, a thousand times more phosphorus is generated, causing more algae to grow than corals, and in the brown tide, the amount of oxygen in the water decreases causing the death of fish and the proliferation of bacteria, “She points out that sargassum also severely affects seagrasses for more than a year, causing more erosion. The impact on the sea prairies can extend up to 60 years. “Contrary to what is believed, burying it on the beach damages the ecosystem irreversibly; the ideal is to create a system to collect it at sea, shortly before it reaches the beach. It is not advisable to do it in the open sea because it is an ecosystem and refuge of marine species, and thus essential for the life cycle.”


On Tulum beach, where the seaweed seems to have found a permanent base since June, the removal of the seaweed has become both a social and political conflict between local authorities and the hotel owners. The beach in Mexico is federal jurisdiction. The hotel owners have been granted a concession, so the federal government is responsible for the beach and the recipient of the net tourism profits, not the local municipal authorities. Due to the expense of collecting and dumping the seaweed, the local authorities pressure the federal government. In the meantime, the hotels who restrict access to the beach, often excluding locals, unless you concede to consume an average minimum of $35 USD, are finding it practically impossible to get local help. Young men are being paid from $350 to $500 pesos daily ( $18-35 USD). On Akumal Beach, workers have been removing seaweed since April. In Playa del Carmen and Cancun, the pressure to clean the beach has brought in heavy machinery, furthermore contributing to beach erosion. Local contractors have doubled their prices this summer to $2500 pesos ($133 USD) after realizing the salinity of the seaweed is corroding their backhoes.


There is a feeling amongst the locals that the government is not taking the adequate measures to protect their business, while environmentalists feel more studies need to be done before an aggressive removal. The federal Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) has acquired special machinery to remove the seaweed in the Caribbean Sea, but it won’t be delivered until November. In the meantime, barriers have begun in late August to be set up, but the initial barriers have failed. Waste water removal trucks have been brought in to pump the murk brown coastlines, but there is a high risk of also sucking up local fauna.


Further south the coast from Tulum, the Sian Ka'an Biosphere, an extension of 90,000 hectares composed of tropical forests, mangroves and marshes, a large marine section intersected by a barrier reef and home to a remarkably rich flora and a fauna hydrological system has seen its shores inundated by sargassum and tones of plastic debris. There is no effort in the biosphere’s coasts at the moment to provide a clean-up. In Punta Allen, a small fishing community surrounded by mangroves, the seaweed has penetrated the low lying areas, potentially damaging them long-term if they sit and sink. Locals who depended on lobster farming have desisted.


No one has found a real cohesive use for sargassum. Daniel Sanchez, from Bio-Economisa del Caribe, based in Monterrey, Mexico claims to be in the early stages of converting the sargassum into a bio-fertilizer and a bio-fuel that could generate electricity for the numerous hotels on the coast. In late August students at the Tecnológico Superior of Felipe Carrillo Puerto presented a project to turn the seaweed into biofuel, while locals like Arturo Carranza in Puerto Morelos, have invested their savings in investigating practical uses. Carranza with the help of his brother a scientist inside the multinational CEMEX has been able to experiment in creating concrete blocks. Most importantly Carranza and other locals have been building their own nets out of plastic water jugs and construction netting. While many locals wonder if it can be used as compost and dump it haphazardly on open land, a study out of Texas State University has tracked the degree to which it can converted into usable compost. For now, the collection of the seaweed has been slow and uncoordinated by both local and federal authorities.

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