White sand beaches, crystal clear waters, breathtaking cenotes, and enthralling Mayan ruins. What could possibly go wrong in this little piece of paradise in the southern part of Riviera Maya?
Seaweed. The seaweed problem in Tulum and the entire Caribbean coast has been affecting its marine life and its tourism. Thus, also affecting the livelihood of families depending on the tourism sector. In this article, we will break down the problem and help you understand what sargassums are, what causes them to bloom, what risks they pose, what is being done to address this ecological crisis, and what you can do about it.
What’s a Sargassum Seaweed?
Sargassum (also referred to as sargasso or sargazo) is a genus of large brown seaweed that never attaches to the seafloor. They have oxygen-filled bladders that are light enough to make them float on water and clump together in huge island-like masses. Although these microalgae can be beneficial as it provides a floating habitat for several aquatic creatures, the abundance of it is spoiling not just the coastline of Tulum but the entire Caribbean — from the United States to Argentina.
Sargassums have a sulfurous smell of decay. Aside from causing nausea among beachgoers, their foul odor also makes the water unswimmable. They often wash up on the shores of the Caribbean coast, especially during the warm months of April until August.
Where Does It Come From?
To put it simply, warm waters and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus help sargassums thrive. Factors such as global warming and runoffs from Brazil’s Amazon River have contributed to this algae problem. Global warming is heating the waters of the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, promoting more sargassums to grow. Additionally, the nitrogen and phosphorus from the Amazon runoff are superfoods for the seaweeds.
For a more in-depth understanding, Dr. Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University and an expert on sargassum, explains where these seaweeds come from and how it ends on the Mexican Caribbean Coast.
According to Lapointe, vast quantities of seaweed grow in a region called the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt that runs from the coast of Africa to Brazil. The seaweeds are moved along from the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt to the Caribbean by hitching a ride on currents. Basically, a range of nutrient-rich sources found in this region is feeding the seaweeds. As they make their way to the Caribbean, the clumps of sargassum pick up more nutrients, forming a 5,500-mile stretch spanning the Atlantic from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Lapointe also mentioned a phenomenon called upwelling. It is a process where seawater rises to the top of the ocean, feeding the seaweeds more.
A Socio-Ecological Problem for Mexico’s Caribbean Coast
The seaweed problem isn’t merely an annoyance to the beachgoers, it poses both ecological and economic risks. The explosive growth of sargassums, currently the world’s largest algae bloom, has its consequences.
From an ecological perspective, these seaweeds harm marine flora and fauna. Although they serve a good purpose when they’re in the ocean, it becomes a different story when they approach the shore. Massive piles of these seaweeds block the sunlight that coral reefs need to grow. Rafts of sargassums also prevent sea turtles from laying eggs and reaching the ocean. Moreover, these floating plants release hydrogen sulfide and ammonium when they decompose. These organic substances and compounds affect the coral reefs and kill fish and crabs.
Aside from the environmental threats, sargassums also significantly impact the economy of Quintana Roo. The decaying seaweeds smell like rotten eggs and disgust plenty of tourists. Due to a lack of human and financial resources, most budget hotels and resorts don’t have the means to regularly clear the sargassums off their beaches. Because of its foul odor and slimy texture that grosses swimmers out, occupancy rates in hotels along Tulum Beach have declined. This forced resorts to lower their prices, which in turn poses a threat to the livelihood of the locals. It’s a pressing problem since tourism accounts for 87% of the GDP of Quintana Roo.
The issue of where to deposit the collected seaweeds is another problem the authorities are having a hard time fixing. There is no adequate final deposit site for all these sargassums.
What Is Being Done About It?
Big problems require bigger solutions. The Mexican federal government, Quintana Roo state authorities, and several hotel management put a massive and collaborative effort (and tons of money!) into eradicating the seaweed problem.
From using expensive netting bumpers to deploying boats equipped with scooping mechanisms to catch and block sargassums, both the private and public sectors have tried different ways to lift plant matter out of the turquoise Caribbean waters.
By the National Government
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has also enlisted the Mexican Navy two years ago to help solve this dilemma. The government sent ships manned by around 300 crew to fish the seaweed out of the water before they hit the coastline. These efforts are still being continued until now. According to Rear Admiral César Gustavo Ramírez Torralba, Coordinator of the Sargassum Attention Strategy and Secretary of the Navy, they installed 9,320 meters (30,578 feet) of containment barriers just off the beaches of Puerto Morelos, Solidaridad, Tulum, and Mahahual, and Xcalak.
By the Local Authorities of Tulum
The City Hall of Tulum has invested 1,000,000 MXN to help their economy recover from the losses due to the sargassum problem and the COVID pandemic. With the support of the Federal Maritime Terrestrial Zone, the Tulum local government has launched a temporary employment program earlier this year to help clean up the beaches from June 21 to August 19. The initiative also aimed to support the livelihood of Tulum families by giving them a bi-weekly remuneration for collecting sargassum and garbage on Santa Fe, Maya, Pescadores, Mezzanine, and Punta Piedra beaches.
The government’s Programa Playas más Limpias or the “Cleaner Beaches Program” has also shown excellent results. Several locals, tourists, and businesses volunteered to clean the shores of Santa Fe, Pescadores, Paraíso, and Punta Piedra beaches.
By Environment Advocates
Numerous environmental advocacies have been urging authorities to help people reduce trash thrown into the sea and take a more active stance to mitigate climate change. Scientists have also studied alternative uses for sargassum. They discovered that these algae can be used as a biostimulant and biofuel. They can also be used to make plant-based leather and cosmetics.
What To Do When You’re in Tulum During Sargassum Season
So you’ve already booked your Tulum trip and realized that it’s within the sargassum season. Here are some tips and alternate activities to help you still make the most of your upcoming vacation:
- Choose a hotel or a resort that has a swimming pool.
- Swim, snorkel, or dive in the amazing cenotes nearby.
- Arrange a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
- Join a yoga or meditation class.
- Unwind with a relaxing spa treatment.
- Witness ancient Mayan temazcal ceremonies.
- Explore the Tulum Ruins Archaeological Site.
- Take a salsa lesson.
- Drink and party downtown.
- Dine while enjoying the magnificent view of the Caribbean Sea.
The Bottom Line
The seaweed problem is not exclusive to Tulum. From the shores of Miami to the beaches of Riviera Maya, these floating algae pose a serious threat to the environment. Although it seems impossible to solve, we can all still contribute to fighting this crisis. Stop dumping your litter in the sea and be more conscious of the environment.