The beaches on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula have a problem that, well, stinks. Unfortunately, it appears the situation will only get worse.
The issue is that sargassum, a type of seaweed, is washing up on beaches in Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo. In what officials fear may become record levels of sargassum, it could be catastrophic for tourist-dependent resort areas nearby.
Navy Minister Rafael Ojeda recently explained that Mexico’s navy has removed 97 tons of sargassum from the sea since February 15 and cleared more than 9,000 tons of sargassum from beaches, according to Mexico News Daily. However, he added that the navy is monitoring an estimated 32,000 tons of sargassum that is off Quintana Roo’s coast.
“We can say the current situation is alarming,” said Navy Secretary José Ojeda, according to the Associated Press.
The problem is that when thick layers of sargassum wash ashore, it makes the beach look unsightly and swimming near it unpleasant. And, of course, there’s no other way to put this, but sargassum stinks as it decomposes.
A Special Type Of Seaweed
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 240 species of fish and 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 mounds 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.
Now, the Quintana Roo Sargassum Monitoring Network’s map shows that 34 beaches currently have what’s considered to be excessive amounts of sargassum. Those beaches include Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, as well as beaches along the eastern coast of Cozumel.
What To Do With It
Ojeda explained that the navy is using 11 sargassum-gathering vessels, 23 other boats, and five air units in its efforts to collect sargassum.
The issue is that those efforts have been largely ineffective in the past. Indeed, in 2020, the navy collected 4 percent of the sargassum at sea, while 96 percent was raked off beaches, according to the Associated Press. Then, only 3 percent of the sargassum was collected at sea in 2021, and only about 1 percent has been collected at sea this year.
While hotels and local authorities normally use work crews to manually remove sargassum from beaches with rakes and wheelbarrows, there’s just too much of it this year. Consequently, those work crews are using backhoes and bulldozers to remove sargassum from beaches this year, but that causes problems too.
“The heavy machinery, when it picks it [sargassum] up, takes a large amount of sand with it,” contributing to beach erosion, said Rosa Rodríguez Martínez, a biologist who studies reefs and coastal ecosystems for Mexico’s National Autonomous University, according to the Associated Press. “There is so much sargassum that you can’t use small-scale equipment anymore, you have to use the heavy stuff, and when the excavators come in, they remove more sand.”
And of course, there’s a monetary cost to removing sargassum that must be taken into account as well. The results of a study conducted by the National Autonomous University’s reef systems unit in Puerto Morelos determined that removing sargassum from beaches costs authorities between 6 million and 10 million pesos ($293,000 to $488,000) per kilometer each year, Mexico Daily News reports.