In what has become an annual event, sargassum, a type of seaweed, has begun washing up on the shore of popular beaches along the Mexican Caribbean.
Mexico’s government has a solution to keep the sargassum at sea so it can’t wash up on the beaches. The problem, says Carlos Joaquín, governor of the state of Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is that the sea barrier isn’t in place yet.
Governor Joaquín spoke with Rear Admiral Alejandro López Zenteno, coordinator of the National Strategy for the Attention of Sargassum, who told Joaquín that the has “all the necessary infrastructure to help contain the sargassum at sea,” according to the Riviera Maya News. The navy will begin putting sea barriers in place within the coming days in a phased approach, Joaquín said.
In the meantime, properties where sargassum washes ashore will need to remove it manually.
“We know this is a natural phenomenon that generates adverse conditions, but we will be working with the Secretary of the Navy, the municipalities, hotels, and the private initiative with our best efforts to keep the beaches clean so that they continue to be a great tourist attraction,” Joaquín said, according to Riviera Maya News.
What, Exactly, Is Sargassum?
Sargassum is a brown alga, or seaweed. Unlike other seaweeds, it floats freely in the ocean, rather than being attached to the ocean floor. These free-floating forms create their own ecosystem and provide a habitat for more than 120 species of fish and more than 120 species of invertebrates, according to the Government of the Virgin Islands.
The problem with sargassum is that it eventually washes ashore. The tangles of seaweed can be miles long, and there may be tens of thousands of weeds tangled around themselves.
When these mounds reach the coast, it’s not only unsightly, would-be swimmers can’t get past sargassum to get into the water and small boats are unable to leave ports.
The biggest downside when sargassum washes ashore is that “it produces a sulfur-like smell making it extremely unpleasant for any nearby beachgoers and typically leads to many avoiding the beach completely,” according to Sargassum Monitoring Network.
“On a purely aesthetic level, it is detrimental to the atmosphere of the region,” Sargassum Monitoring notes. “The biggest draw of the Mexican Caribbean is the pristine beaches and crystal blue water. The presence of a giant knot of seaweed changes the water’s color and the white sands are covered and smelly.”
Sargassum typically begins to wash ashore in popular Mexican Caribbean destinations such as Cancun, Cozumel, and Tulum in the spring.
Esteban Amaro, head of the Sargassum Monitoring Network, says a large patch of sargassum was located near Honduras on March 22, according to the Riviera Maya News. That patch is slowly making its way toward Quintana Roo.
The sargassum will also continue getting larger as it approaches Quintana Roo because the seawater temperature continues to warm, which in turn causes the algae to bloom.
The sargassum has already begun reaching beaches from Cancun to Mahahual, according to the Riviera Maya News. In fact, an estimated 80 tons of sargassum has already washed ashore in Playa del Carmen and several other tourist spots, including Tulum, according to The Cancun Sun.
Workers have been manually removing the sargassum, but it is a tedious process. Here’s why: The sargassum must be removed manually with rakes and wheelbarrows so the sandy beaches aren’t disturbed.
The Plan Of Action
Governor Joaquín explains that sea barriers will be put in place by the navy in front of Puerto Morelos any day now.
Then the sea barrier will be installed in front of Playa del Carmen during the first week of April, Joaquín said, according to the Riviera Maya News. After that, a sea barrier will be put in place off the coast of Tulum during the second week of April.
Rear Admiral López also told Joaquín that the navy will use sargassum collection vessels to catch the sargassum while it’s at sea, which will prevent it from reaching the coast, according to the Riviera Maya News.
If you’re thinking about traveling this spring, be sure to read all of our Mexico content, including: