It’s brown. It’s ugly. It smells bad, and it’s carpeting
some of the most popular beaches in parts of the Caribbean and along the
shorelines of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
This summer’s invasion of sargassum, a vine-like type of
floating seaweed, stretches from the beaches of Palm Beach County and Key West
in Florida as far south as Tulum on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. The east and south
coasts of Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Tobago and Cancun have been
particularly hard hit, but other islands, too, have battled the invasion.
Sargassum also is a problem along sections of the Texas Gulf coast, especially
Galveston, although a slight shift in ocean currents has spared the region from
the seaweed onslaught of last summer.
Sargassum masses usually appear in seasonal cycles and in
manageable amounts from May through August throughout the Caribbean and
Yucatan, pushed along by ocean currents, tides and winds.
In the Hot Seat
Senior editor Gay Nagle Myers talked with Florida Atlantic University's Brian Lapointe, a research professor and oceanographer, on the surge of sargassum seaweed on Caribbean and Mexican beaches. Read More
“This is the worst year ever,” said Brian Lapointe, a
professor and oceanographer with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch
Oceanographic Institute. “I’d say we have hit a crisis level. There’s been an
increase in the frequency and the extent of sargassum coming ashore, choking
scenic coves and piling as high as 10 feet on some beaches.”
His research suggests sargassum flourishes from nitrogen and
phosphorus land-based runoffs and pollutants that wash into rivers such as the
Mississippi and Amazon. Climate change could also be a culprit, he said, as
could the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Dispersant used to break down
the oil produced nitrogen, which fertilized the sargassum.
With the winter high season in the Caribbean and Mexico
approaching, tourism officials are scrambling to address the problem. Daily
raking clears some of it, but more piles up the next day. Disposing of it is
also a problem.
“Some resorts are installing fence-like barriers near the
beach shorelines to prevent the stuff from coming ashore, but that’s expensive
and not a permanent solution,” Lapointe said.
CheapCaribbean is working to ensure that its call center
agents are able to address customer questions or concerns, according to Alyssa
Scheppauch, call center director.
Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Jesus Almaguer
said sargassum has not impacted tourism. “Both the public and private sectors
are working to maintain that the coast remains pristine,” he said.
The Cancun government in collaboration with local hotels
established a cleaning program that enables 85% of the beaches to remain free
of excessive sargassum. Close to 50% of Cancun’s beaches face Isla Mujeres,
which acts as a protective barrier against currents the seaweed carries in.
The Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association in cooperation
with the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism and corporate partner OBM
International issued a Sargassum Resource Guide in mid-July.
On Barbados’ east coast, hotels are providing complimentary
transportation to west coast beaches for the day.
“Many guests have expressed interest in the ecological
occurrence and have volunteered to aid in cleanup efforts,” said Sue Springer,
CEO of the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association.
Sandals, which recently opened its Barbados resort on the
island’s south coast, cleans its beach every morning.
“Because of this effort, operations are running normally,
with the beach open and all watersports activities uninterrupted,” said Butch
Stewart, chairman and founder.
Sargassum is a nonissue for Sandals’ resorts in the Bahamas,
Turks and Caicos and Antigua, he said.
Martinique’s Atlantic coast has been hard hit. The island’s
Regional Council has spent $2.2 million on sargassum cleanup, and over 100
volunteers work with public works staff to clear affected areas.