Large amounts of sargassum, a type of seaweed, typically wash up on the beaches in Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo for several months each year. While sargassum is still expected to arrive this year, new research calls for less of the smelly seaweed to reach the shoreline and bother tourists and locals alike.
As happens each year, large amounts of sargassum will still be found in the Caribbean Sea, research from the National Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture and the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine Sciences shows, according to Riviera Maya News. What will be different this year, however, is that atmospheric conditions and ocean currents will keep much of the sargassum from reaching the coast of Quintana Roo, says Jaime González Cano, a specialist from the Aquaculture and Fisheries Research Center of Puerto Morelos.
Large amounts of sargassum have appeared in the Caribbean Sea every summer since 2011, except in 2013, according to the University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab.
Specifically, much of the so-called Mexican Riviera, on Mexico’s coast, was plagued with especially high sargassum levels in 2015 and 2018. In fact, 2018 was considered a “catastrophic year.” Then sargassum levels in 2022 nearly equaled those of 2018.
González Cano forecasts the sargassum level for the 2023 season, which generally runs from April through August, to be similar to that of 2019, which was considered a mild year — even though hundreds of tons of the seaweed washed up on the Quintana Roo coastline daily.
A Unique Kind 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, but 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.
As the sargassum decomposes, it not only smells bad and attracts insects, it causes environmental problems, according to the University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab. For example, it can also smother turtle nesting sites, increase sea turtle mortality rates, and cause fish kills.
Plans For This Year’s Sargassum
Even though less sargassum is forecast to reach Quintana Roo’s beaches this year, González Cano still recommends that municipalities make plans now to deal with its arrival.
Riviera Maya authorities are, indeed, taking that message to heart.
For example, María de Lourdes Várguez Ocampo, general director of the Federal Maritime Terrestrial Zone (Zofemat) for Solidaridad, says the municipality, which includes Playa del Carmen, is already preparing to use more machinery, as well as sargassum removal tools and equipment, to deal with the annual problem.
“The leasing of machinery and equipment is already scheduled, both with federal funds and with sanitation funds,” Ocampo said, according to Riviera Maya News. “We believe we have guaranteed clean beaches like we had last year. I think it will be much better this year due to the number of machines that are being rented.”
How You Can Keep Tabs On The Sargassum
Sargassum generally begins reaching Quintana Roo’s beaches sometime in late March or early April. If you have plans to visit Quintana Roo or are considering making those plans, you can monitor the sargassum as it approaches Mexico from your own home.
For more about visiting Quintana Roo, be sure to read all of our Mexico content, including