Workers remove sargassum in Quintana Roo. Workers remove sargassum in Quintana Roo. sipse/Tomás Álvarez

Sargassum seaweed: it keeps on coming

The problem is becoming a big one throughout the Caribbean

Removing the foul-smelling, fly-infested mounds of seaweed from the beaches of Quintana Roo continues, and with no end in sight.

The much larger than normal volume of sargassum seaweed, which has turned beaches all over the Caribbean from pristine white to coffee brown, keeps on coming.

Authorities in the state say they have gathered up more than 22,000 cubic meters of sargassum in Cancún alone. Every day, laborers and machinery head out to the beaches to collect seaweed, and every day more of the stuff arrives.

One official predicts it will continue for some months to come.

One positive offshoot is that a temporary employment program has been created to recruit the labour required. The 4,000 jobs created have been 80% filled.

But that is probably the only positive offshoot there is.

A negative outcome, as far as the use of machinery is concerned, is the potential for collateral damage. Environmental authorities are investigating the deaths of sea turtles on the beach in Playa del Carmen after heavy equipment tracks were found at the scene.

However, it’s not just the backhoes that can kill the turtles. There have been reports of newly-hatched turtles betting tangled and trapped in the seaweed itself.

The biggest downside to the sargassum invasion is the economic fallout. In Tobago, reports The Guardian, the seaweed’s presence has been called a natural disaster. Across the Caribbean tourists have been canceling their summer holidays, persuaded by hordes of biting sand fleas and the pungent smell of decaying seaweed, likened to rotten eggs, to stay away.

Tobago’s tourism association chief says it’s the worst year they have ever seen, and worries about the effect it will have on the entire region’s tourism industry.

No one has been able to pinpoint the precise reason for the phenomenon, which has been worsening in recent years. Climate change and nutrients and pollutants that fertilize the weed have both been identified.

Back in Quintana Roo, with the big winter tourist season just around the corner, authorities are planning a meeting next week to review the situation and consider other strategies for addressing it.

One strategy being studied by the Cancún and Puerto Morelos Hotels Association is to have boats gather up the sargassum before it arrives. The group is anxiously awaiting the results of a study because the region’s most important tourism fair is coming up in early October.

The Cancún Travel Mart will bring buyers who won’t be impressed by mounds of smelly seaweed on the beach. Association president Carlos Gosselín Maurel said the hospitality industry stands to lose as much as 20% in tariffs and occupancy if there isn’t a plan in place.

Meanwhile, some visitors are taking it in their stride. “The smell of seaweed is terrible,” a German tourist told The Guardian, “but I’m enjoying the sun.”

Others might not be so nonchalant.

Source: SIPSE (sp), Unión Cancún (sp), The Guardian (en), Diario de Quintana Roo (sp)

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