Caribbean, Mexico resorts plagued by sargassum outbreak

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A sargassum-filled beach on Barbados in June.
A sargassum-filled beach on Barbados in June. Photo Credit: Brian Lapointe

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.

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