Sargassum cleanup initiatives have begun early in Quintana Roo, with more than 250 of state and federal public officials leading efforts to clear seaweed from beaches in the municipality of Mahahual.
While the sargassum season typically does not start until April or May, high volumes of the seaweed — which the tourism industry finds unacceptably unsightly piled up along shores and which can emit a foul odor, have already made landfall on the state’s beaches.
Sargassum does not typically reach peak levels until late spring or early summer.
Governor of the state Mara Lezama Espinosa launched the Tod@s Contra el Sargasso (Everyone Against Sargassum) campaign on Friday. The Ministry of the Navy (SEMAR) is assisting in the cleanup efforts by trawling seaweed out of the ocean before it can reach Quintana Roo’s shores.
“A challenge brings us together — winning the battle against a recurrent enemy that impacts us environmentally, economically and in the image of our tourist destinations: the landfall of sargassum,” Lezama said.
She also announced the installation of floating sea fences in Mahahual.
“There are 1,400 meters of fence to help prevent the sargassum from reaching the beach,” the governor said.
“We cannot prevent the arrival of sargassum. It is a natural phenomenon due to climate change. What we can do is put our energy together and take the initiative,” she added.
She noted that the presence of sargassum negatively impacts the state’s natural beauty and tourist attractions, with adverse economic implications.
Lezama emphasized the federal government’s support of the cleanup efforts, highlighting the participation of SEMAR and the Environmental Ministry (Semarnat), as well as cooperation from municipal governments and private-sector establishments located on the impacted beachfronts.
Early increases in sargassum have also been observed in the north of the state, with officials issuing a red alert for excessive seaweed levels at several beaches. The only beaches that have yet to receive an alert are those in Holbox, Contoy, Isla Mujeres, Cancún’s hotel zone, the west coast of Cozumel and the Bacalar lagoon.
According to the Cancún Hotel Association, more than US $20 million has been designated for beach cleanup in 2023.
The Tulum City Council also began clearing seaweed from beaches early Thursday morning. While the levels are not yet worrying, fishermen and tour guides quoted in the newspaper Milenio noted that the amount of seaweed on shore has increased noticeably in the last week.
Jesús Sabido, a tour operator in the municipality, stressed the need to start cleanup operations early rather than waiting until the levels begin impacting tourism in April and May.
The presence of sargassum on Quintana Roo’s beaches has increased over the last few years. While SEMAR collected 19,000 tons in 2020, that number rose drastically in 2021 and 2022, to 44,913 and 54,054 tons, respectively.
The amount of sargassum is set to further increase this year. According to the Oceanographic Institute of the Gulf and Caribbean Sea, Playa del Carmen will likely be the city most impacted in 2023.
The sargassum levels on the state’s beaches can change in one day, and two beaches in the same area can have very different amounts, as evidenced by the pile of seaweed that appeared on Playa del Carmen’s Pelicans’ Beach Friday.
Riviera Maya Hotel Association President Antonio Chaves told La Jornada Maya has requested US$ 100 million from the United Nations to assist with cleanup efforts. As part of the “Riviera Maya Carbon Neutral Goal 2050” initiative, the sargassum collected at sea could be used as a biofertilizer and biofuel, a low-carbon energy source.
News of the funds should come in the next few months.