Sargassum Worries Grow in Mexican Caribbean

Sargassum Worries Grow in Mexican Caribbean

Sargassum seaweed on the beach in Cancun, Mexico (photo by Eric Bowman)

The Mexican Caribbean’s normally white-sand beaches are once again littered with brown sargassum.

Just as tourism recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the heaps of the brown algae has begun to plague the region’s pristine beaches, and authorities are raising concerns.

“We can say the current situation is alarming,” Navy Secretary José Ojeda told the Associated Press. Ojeda has been entrusted with the apparently hopeless task of trying to gather sargassum at sea before it hits the beaches.

There are currently 11 sargassum-collecting boats in the region operated by Mexico’s Navy, but collection efforts are declining. According to the Associated Press, the Navy collected 4 percent of sargassum at sea in 2020, while 96 percent was raked off beaches. That figure fell to 3 percent in 2021 and about 1 percent so far in 2022.

Removing sargassum once it reaches the beach is harmful to the environment, leading to erosion due to the heavy equipment that is now necessary to remove the large swaths of brown algae.

Rosa Rodríguez Martínez, a biologist in the beachside town of Puerto Morelos who studies reefs and coastal ecosystems for Mexico’s National Autonomous University said that the seaweed is a problem for both local hotels and businesses and the ecosystem.

“The heavy machinery, when it picks it (sargassum) up, takes a large amount of sand with it,” contributing to beach erosion, Rodriguez Martinez said. “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.”

She also told the Associated Press that she has seen more this year than before.

“In the last few days there have been amounts washing up, and in places, that I didn’t see even in 2018,” she said.

Not everyone agrees that it is as bad as ever.

The University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab said in a report that “2022 is likely going to be another moderate or major sargassum year,” with observable amounts in all waters lower than in 2018 and 2021.

Even if this isn’t the worst year, sargassum season is already shaping up to be bad just as the region embarks on a tourism recovery.

The navy began preparing for the arrival of sargassum in March and was erecting barriers to prevent the algae from arriving on beaches.

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