Cancun seaweed update: conditions, presence, and distribution of sargassum in the state of Quintana Roo this month

26/07/2021

The data so far available point to the fact that during July and August 2021, there will be a very significant volume of sargassum in the ocean. Sea currents transport this seaweed to the beaches of Cancun, which include the coasts and islands of Quintana Roo, whose excessive quantity can generate environmental problems and economic effects, given that it impacts tourism and fishing.

According to monitoring data, 7 beaches in Cancun are green, that is, they have very low sargassum, this does not mean that there is no sargassum, but that it is good for swimming; 3 are yellow, one is orange, with abundant sargassum and none is with excess, in red. Photo credit: Sargassum Monitoring Network Cancun
According to monitoring data, 7 beaches in Cancun are green, that is, they have very low sargassum, this does not mean that there is no sargassum, but that it is good for swimming; 3 are yellow, one is orange, with abundant sargassum and none is with excess, in red. Photo credit: Sargassum Monitoring Network Cancun

Depending on the sea temperature and other meteorological conditions, in the summer months of 2021, a record volume of sargassum biomass in the Caribbean Sea may be set. The authorities of the different levels of government and the private sector coordinate efforts to continue and increase the actions to contain and collect sargassum in the sea before it reaches the coasts, and carry out continuous cleaning on the beaches of tourist destinations.

To combat the sargassum, the Secretariat of the Navy (Semar) has a ship and 12 other vessels, they also place containment barriers parallel to the coast to capture the seaweed before it lands on the beaches. They also have the Sargazo Monitoring System, which has among its objectives to systematize the information on the volumes collected on the coasts of the state of Quintana Roo, which in theory will allow making improvements in the strategies of management and use of the seaweed.

The massive sargassum infestation has not caused cancellations or early departures of tourists, so hotel occupancy in the main destinations of the Mexican Caribbean remains stable. Hundreds of tourists continue arriving at the Mexican Caribbean beaches despite the massive sargassum invasion registered on the coasts of Quintana Roo, which is already worrying the hotel and services sector, as it is feared that it may impact the mood of both national and foreign visitors.

Up to now, the algae has not caused cancellations or early departures of tourists, so hotel occupancy in the main destinations of the Mexican Caribbean remains stable.

For its part, the Hotel Association of Cancun, Puerto Morelos, and Isla Mujeres acknowledged that sargassum represents a threat to the reactivation of tourism, as some places have a greater volume of seaweed, such is the case of Tulum. In addition to the macroalgae issue, there is the Covid-19 pandemic and the rebound it has had in the state. For the moment, the Optical Oceanography Laboratory of the University of South Florida revealed that the sargassum influx will increase during the summer and could continue until August.

Around three-quarters of Quintana Roo's economy depends on tourism, the sector most affected by mobility restrictions to control COVID-19, some of which are still in force and, in the particular case of the state, are at "imminent risk" of increasing if it returns to red on the epidemiological indicator. Banorte analysts estimate that Quintana Roo's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) suffered a historic 24.2% plunge in 2020, the most severe in the country, and it will take until 2027 or longer to fully recover the levels of economic activity it had in 2018.

Beaches with low and no sargassum today

Among the beaches and areas with low and no sargassum today, suitable for swimming are Isla Blanca, Costa Mujeres, Playa Mujeres, Punta Sam, Playa del Niño, Puerto Juarez, Puerto Cancun, Playa Langosta, Playa Tortugas, Playa Caracol, Punta Cancun, Playa Gaviota Azul. Chac-Mool Beach, Marlin Beach. Ballenas Beach, Puerto Morelos Centro, Xcalacoco, Mamitas Beach, Barceló Maya, Xpu-Ha, Kantenah, Akumal, Bahia Principe, Xcacel-Xcacelito, Bahia Soliman, Punta Mosquito, Holbox Centro, Punta Cocos, Chiquilá, Isla Contoy Isla Mujeres, Playa Norte Isla Mujeres, Playa del Faro Isla Mujeres, Punta sur, Punta Celarain, Playa San Juan, Cozumel Muelle, Playa Chankanaab, Playa Mia, Playa San Francisco, Playa Palancar, El Cielo, Punta Sur

YouTubers do more damage than sargassum

The beach clubs have been severely affected by the constant arrival of sargassum to the beaches, in addition to the low tourist affluence, however, the greatest affectation is the bad promotion generated by YouTubers who generally talk about the seaweed without foundations, nor scientific knowledge.

Nicarnos Reyes Pacho, in charge of beach beds at a beach club, said it is a normal phenomenon that has always existed and with the change of wind direction the beaches are cleaned. Regarding the sanitary contingency, he commented that the beach clubs have had to reduce the number of diners according to the color of the epidemiological traffic light.

How Mexicans combat seaweed in Cancun

In the case of seaweed containment in shallow waters is the responsibility of the Secretary of the Navy, which is carried out with sargassum boats, while the terrestrial response in public beaches is the responsibility of the local authority, through the Federal Maritime Terrestrial Zone (Zofemat) and Municipal Public Services.

Based on the statistics collected according to the arrival of this algae in previous years and the forecast for this season, the actions include brigades with 180 people for beach cleaning and removal of sargassum in those sites.

Specialized machinery such as seven sweepers coupled to agricultural tractors and special units for the removal of the seaweed and its transfer to the final destination. In addition, seven manual sieving machines will allow the removal of solid waste such as bottle caps, cigarette butts, microplastics, glass, among others, which come ashore along with the sargassum.

Four sargassum collection points have been set aside in the sandy beaches of Playa del Niño, Playa Las Perlas, Playa Delfines, and Playa Coral, for drying and screening, for subsequent transfer to the final site.

Emphasis has been made on the importance of joining efforts with the users of the federal zone, so that they comply with the responsibilities of their concession so that the massive arrival does not affect the sandy beaches and reduce the negative impact on tourism, by spreading a bad image of the destination.

Monitoring and detection of seaweed in Cancun

The Ministry of the Navy informed that since March it started monitoring sargassum in the Caribbean Sea, in order to contain the algae. The Direction of Meteorology of this Institution and the Oceanographic Institute of the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea monitor this phenomenon, and have determined the elaboration of meteorological forecasts of the conditions that occur in the Caribbean and of the sargassum patches in the high seas.

Reconnaissance flights are carried out by Mexican Navy aircraft to check for any patches of seaweed that may reach the Mexican coasts. Coastal vessels are carrying out surveillance actions, while sargassum boats are carrying out the collection, and tractors and land sweepers are ready on land.

Since 2011, sargassum has increased on the Atlantic coasts. It is brown algae, whose biomass has grown and its origin is probably linked to climate change and other global anthropogenic environmental alterations. The large sargassum belt originates off the coast of West Africa and is moved by ocean currents towards the Americas. These macroalgae find conditions to grow due to the precipitation of dust from the Sahara desert and the nutrients they find on their way to the Caribbean.

The amount of sargassum that in other years has reached the coasts has severe impacts on ecosystems and species of high biological value; alterations have been observed in the Mesoamerican Reef System, where both the reef and the seaweed are affected because the layer of sargassum on the water impedes the passage of light. It indicates that tourism is also affected.

Meanwhile, the National Polytechnic Institute informed that it will advise personnel of the Secretariat of the Navy to use satellite technology to detect the arrival of sargassum on the beaches, information that will strengthen the technical reports with which the sargassum response strategy operates.

Remember to check the flags on the beach
Remember to check the flags on the beach

Before diving into the sea remember to check the flags on the beach as these indicate the conditions of the water. 🏝 It is important to take precautions and to avoid accidents.

✅ Green: Safe

⚠️ Yellow: Caution

🔴 Red: Danger

The Sargassum Monitoring Network is made up of biologists, oceanologists, computer engineers, and hydrobiologists, and draws up reports of sargassum from satellite images provided by the Optical Oceanography Laboratory of the University of South Florida, and the System of Marine Monitoring of the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio).

The Network also takes its own videos and photographs daily with a fleet of 8 drones "that scan virtually the entire coast, from north to south." And they receive videos and photographs from followers they have on Facebook.

Thanks to these three elements, satellite images, images of the drones, and images of users, they can make a very accurate signalized map of how seaweed is in the entire northern and southern part of Quintana Roo. The Secretariat of Tourism of Quintana Roo also publishes daily reports on the state of the beaches in the state in its social networks.

The predictions are also based on high-definition satellite images shared by the European Space Agency (ESA), supported by the observations of the last 30 days and the review of more than 300 high-resolution images in the infrared spectrum held by the Quintana Roo government.

Fancy trying a Seaweed Cocktail in Cancun?

Seaweed cocktail at the Ritz-Carlton Cancun. Photo: The Ritz-Carlton
Seaweed cocktail at the Ritz-Carlton Cancun. Photo: The Ritz-Carlton

The exotic cocktail is made with tequila Patrón Blanco, aquafaba, lemon juice, lavender biter, as well as dehydrated portions of pineapple and sargassum shrub and pineapple, for which a triple washing and disinfection process was carried out on the macroalgae collected from the sea, mixed with pineapple, honey, rosemary, and star anise.

What is sargassum and where it comes from

Sargassum is a large macroalga, meadow, or dark green color, which lives in the seas and moves by the currents of the oceans. If the conditions for its growth are optimal, in less than twenty days it doubles its biomass (as it is happening), since it has the facility to grow very fast. In this way, the algae turn brown the paradisiacal beaches of the Mexican Caribbean and pose a real threat to the tourist interests of the region.

The macroalga reaches the Caribbean from two main sources: the Sargasso Sea, in the Bermuda Triangle, and a new area, north of the equator, where it accumulates off the coast of Brazil to enter the Caribbean.

Sargassum on beaches is an indicator of pollution and increased damage caused by human activity in the seas and Caribbean coasts, where there are irregular settlements and inadequate treatment of sewage and greywater.

The population is recommended to take precautions to carry out water activities due to wave and wind effects. Also, take extreme precautions when traveling on the road due to wet soil from the rains.

The sargassum arrival is a regional phenomenon that affects, without distinction, all the coasts of more than 30 countries, territories, and different protectorates.

Sargassum is reported from the coasts of Cuba, Turks and Caicos Islands, Inagua, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Honduras, and also the coastal region of Quintana Roo Mexico.

Also, further east, all the islands of the Lesser Antilles arc are affected, such as the British Virgin Islands, Saint John, Saint Thomas, Culebra, Antigua, and Barbuda, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Barbados, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines.

It also arrives in Granada, Trinidad, and Tobago, Curacao, Margarita Island, Aruba, the Atlantic Coast of Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and the Peninsula of Florida in the United States.

Sustainable solutions

Sargassum can be used as fuel, energy generator, fertilizer, animal feed, in the tourism sector, and has become useful raw material in several industries which could leave great contributions to Mexico.

From the problem that brought the arrival of sargassum to the Mexican Caribbean coast, researchers, universities, biologists, and ecologists from Mexico, Japan, and other parts of the world, studied the composition and properties of these macroalgae. It has many positive, sustainable applications and whose impact will be long term.

Sargassum has recently been used in the preparation of blocks or bricks to be used in construction. It should be noted that this application is ecologically more friendly and economically more profitable.

There are already buildings made with sargassum bricks, which means that it is a viable and safe building material. For the construction of approximately 40 square meters, 20 tons of sargassum would be used and create 2,150 blocks of this seaweed, which represents a relief because it will not be treated as waste, but its presence will be used to create spaces and environmentally friendly constructions.

In addition to being a sustainable material, the use and exploitation of sargassum would have a positive impact on costs, since construction investment would be reduced by up to 50 percent and would be a replicable construction model in states such as Durango, State of Mexico, Zacatecas, among others.

The Ministry of Ecology and Environment of Quintana Roo, conducted studies on the blocks created with sargassum and defined that their resistance is between 75 and 120 kilos, while the durability can be up to 120 years regardless of the region or type of climate where they are used. Currently, there are no sustainable materials so resistant even with that period of life. This means that the buildings made from this seaweed will be really sustainable and ecological.

On the beaches of Quintana Roo, such as Tulum, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, Puerto Morelos, Mahahual, to name a few, construction of homes and hotels from the sargassum has begun, a trend that is expected to rise.