Cancun seaweed conditions: 2021 sargassum season begins in the Mexican Caribbean


Cancun seaweed update: Sargassum, macroalgae that between May and September of previous years has invaded the Caribbean coast, is already on the beaches of Cancun, in "very low" to moderate levels in most and there are five that have "abundance", including the ruins of Tulum and Xcacel-Xcacelito.

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 of the more than 40 thousand 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.

Wind continues to bring some seaweed to the coast in the Mexican Caribbean. Image: Sargassum Monitoring Network Cancun
Wind continues to bring some seaweed to the coast in the Mexican Caribbean. Image: Sargassum Monitoring Network Cancun

How Mexicans combat sargassum

The Mexican Navy collected a total of 17,865 tons of sargassum on the beaches and maritime areas that make up the municipalities of Isla Mujeres, Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Othón p. Blanco, affected in the state of Quintana Roo.

At the end of Operation Sargasso 2020, 24 boats were deployed for the collection of seaweed, six sargassum boats, one research boat, and 17 smaller ones; as well as four sweepers and tractors, in addition to an aircraft in which scouting tours were carried out and 4,250 meters of the barrier for containment.

According to the balance of the strategy during the 2020 season of the Sargasso in Mexico, June, July, and August were the months with the largest collection of sargasso in the municipalities of Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Cancun. In June, a total of 4,082.71 tons were collected, while in July 5,294.29 and August 2,168.21 tons of the algae that invaded the beaches of Quintana Roo.

The six seaweed harvesting vessels were designed and built at the Navy Yards by Mexican engineers and naval personnel.

During Operation Sargasso 2020, the Mexican Navy carried out several chemical oceanography research studies on different beaches of the municipalities, physical oceanography study in Cancun, a bathymetric study in Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Mahahual, and Xcalak.

The agreements reached between state, federal, and local authorities and businessmen are to continue applying the Strategy of Attention to the Sargasso next year according to the conditions of the arrival of the warning light established. Establish dialogue tables between the Federation, State, and Municipalities for the financing of maintenance.

To apply the necessary maintenance to the sweepers and tractors according to its program and to provide the logistic support for the personnel of SEMAR as far as lodging and necessary feeding during the operation sargasso of the next year; also to designate squads of personnel to support in the collection of seaweed on board of the smaller boats and in the activities of installation, maintenance, uninstallation and safeguard of the containment barriers and smaller boats during a meteorological phenomenon.

Establish places to protect barriers, machinery, and boats, ready to be used according to adverse weather conditions and provide coordinated support to receive the sargassum collected by NATANS and BSC at the respective docks; in addition, have in place the warning light prior to the next season.

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.