Marine barriers installed in Puerto Morelos to contain sargassum but they don't serve their purpose very well

Puerto Morelos has begun the anchoring and installation of 2,200 linear meters of marine barriers in the almost two kilometers of beaches that are under the direct attention of the City Council, including the Ventana al Mar. This will serve to contain and direct the sargassum to collection points that will be used for that purpose.

Presence of sargassum in waters of Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo. The municipal government has installed marine barriers to try to contain the massive arrival of algae (Photo taken from Canal7slp.com)
Presence of sargassum in waters of Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo. The municipal government has installed marine barriers to try to contain the massive arrival of algae (Photo taken from Canal7slp.com)

Sargasso accumulations will be avoided in the areas that are used as spas, in addition to allowing a faster and more effective collection. Several hotel groups in Puerto Morelos already have these barriers in operation and others are in the process of installing it so it will be more beneficial in various areas.

The use of these barriers is part of the agreements and proposals derived from the Puerto Morelos Protocol that has consolidated the municipality as a success story due to positive results with which the contamination of the beaches is avoided.

Barriers against seaweed fail to live up to their task. Photos: FB Grupo de Red Sargazo

In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, the municipal president, Laura Fernández Piña, informed that with the placement of the fences, it is calculated to reduce the arrival of sargassum to the shore of the beaches, by 65 percent; A barge is also used to collect it in the sea, all as part of the actions that make up the Puerto Morelos Protocol, designed by the scientific community, citizens and hoteliers.

"These barriers are also being replicated in the main lodging centers; we have around 16 hotels, where between 8 and 10 hotels already have their barriers contracted and the rest are on track. We believe that more than 40 percent of the beaches of Puerto Morelos will have barriers in coming months. 

Added to that we already have the sargassum boat that lifts the algae at the foot of the barriers and the machinery on land, to be able to clean the beaches, without damaging them, returning the sand and the final disposal with three cells, alternating them to achieve a better drying of the sargasso and not to contaminate with leachates (toxic liquids of the sargasso in decomposition) ".

The presence of barriers is not continuous and its position depends on the intensity and direction of the marine currents. On the beach, the municipal government has disposed of 300 people per day for cleaning.

"It's an army; The economic cost has been impressive, "said the mayor, who said that the use of technology is expected to reduce labor and therefore, the expense.

Other measures of the government to attend to the massive arrival of the algae are the elaboration of a regulation that sets out the guidelines for the integral treatment of the sargassum in practically all its slopes.

Equally the acquisition of boats to address the sargassum and collect it before the barriers, in addition to two sweepers of the beach of 1.9 meters wide, special to collect this material.

Amphibious bands will be installed at the collection points to support the removal of sargassum in water and terrestrial bands for those that reach the beaches.

Map of the distribution and abundance of sargassum in the Northern Zone of the State of Quintana Roo on June 22

Problematic natural phenomenon

The Mexican Caribbean faces a problem due to the arrival of sargassum to its beaches, almost permanent and repetitive situation year after year, and that in addition to Mexico, it affects 15 countries of the region.

May is the month in which the arrival of the largest volumes of sargassum begins, and it is anticipated that in the summer the influx will be even more.

According to statistics, last year the most affected areas were Tulum and the Mahahual area, followed by Puerto Morelos. In a smaller proportion, Cancún was affected. Cozumel and Isla Mujeres were the least prejudice.

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President López Obrador minimizes the sargassum crisis in Mexico while scientists and hoteliers fear its consequences

While the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, downplayed the problem of the massive arrival of sargassum to the coasts of the Mexican Caribbean, scientists and hoteliers have expressed their concerns about a phenomenon that could profoundly modify tourist destinations such as Cancún.

On tour in the state of Quintana Roo, the Mexican president indicated that the problems derived from the massive arrivals of this macroalga to the coasts have been magnified by some critics of his administration.

"I do not consider it to be very serious, as some say," said López Obrador at his morning conference on June 26. "Sargassum is a minor issue," but "we are sure that we will solve it without problems," the president added.

In this regard, he was confident that his Administration could resolve the crisis without major setbacks, through a plan coordinated by the Navy together with state and local authorities.

For his part, the head of the Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Rafael Ojeda, explained that the Mexican Government's strategy includes the construction of 10 to 12 Sargasso vessels, in addition to the purchase of barriers to divert and contain the arrival of macroalgae. A special boat will also be rehabilitated to collect sargassum and improve the spot monitoring systems of this species.

In total, the containment strategy is expected to cost 52 million pesos (2.7 million dollars).

"In the past six years a lot of money was invested and the problem was not solved," said Admiral Ojeda. "Then we can face it as a problem of State and not as a business, which is what had been done."

However, the Secretary of the Navy recognized that, rather than picking up sargassum, the real problem is knowing "what to do with it". Although some options have been evaluated, the Mexican government will consult with scientists to determine what might be the best use of this seaweed.

Environmental catastrophe

In counterpart, the scientists of the National Autonomous University of Mexico consider that the problem of sargassum puts the Caribbean Sea at risk as we know it until now.

"I think it's worrying that the president thinks it's not something big," said Rosa Rodríguez Martínez, an academic from the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology at UNAM, in an interview with journalist Carmen Aristegui.

"It could be catastrophic for coastal ecosystems."

Rodríguez coordinated a scientific study for the Marine Pollution Bulletin, which documents the way sargassum is killing 78 marine species in Quintana Roo, especially fish and crustaceans because the decomposition of the alga generates oxygen loss Marine.

"I think it's bad advice on the subject, it's a very delicate situation, coastal ecosystems and the economy are threatened, and it's not just an opinion, there are scientific studies that support this."

Loses in millions

From another point of view, hoteliers are also worried about the fall of tourism derived from sargassum and the climate of violence that exists in the state of Quintana Roo.

The president of the Hotel Association of the Riviera Maya, Conrad Bergwerf, said that, from January to May 2019, the hotel sector in the Mexican Caribbean saw a 6% drop in hotel occupancy compared to the same period of the previous year. which implies economic losses close to 12 million dollars.

However, the head of the Ministry of Tourism of Quintana Roo, Marisol Vanegas, said that it is expected a growth of 3% in the number of visitors for the summer season.

This is despite the fact that Sargassum and violence caused by organized crime in the area of ​​Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum have been a constant concern for the inhabitants of the region. In this sense, the governor of Quintana Roo, Carlos Joaquín, assured that the number of intentional homicides in the state was reduced 58% in the month of May.

The hotels of Quintana Roo analyze to lower their tariffs up to 20%

A brown spot stains the white beaches of Quintana Roo every morning. They are kilos and kilos of sargasso that, every day, the Secretary of the Navy, hotel groups and even volunteers rush to collect in a race against the clock. They know they will have to repeat the operation the next day. The Secretariat of Tourism of Quintana Roo (Sedetur) indicates that reservations have not yet been canceled; nevertheless, the hoteliers already analyze to lower their tariffs between 15% and 20%.

With this drop in prices, the sector would seek to mitigate something that has registered: a slowdown in reservations towards the main beach attractions in the state. This means that they would be able to meet the hotel occupancy maximums estimates but in a longer period.

According to data from Sedetur, hotel occupancy in Cancun and Puerto Morelos fell 2.8% from May 1 to May 22, compared to the same period in 2018. In the Mayan Riviera, the drop was 2.3%, while destinations such as Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, and Chetumal, where the effect of sargassum is lower, registered an increase of 3.3%, 2.3%, and 20.2%, respectively.

According to estimates of the travel platform Viajala.com.mx, during the Hot Sale, the days of discounts in e-commerce that was held last week, Cancun was the most wanted destination. In addition, there was a decrease of 18% in the hotel rates of Quintana Roo compared to the previous week, while the average for the first quarter was 15%.

The big hotel groups or those with different business partners will not suffer so much, but the smaller and less diversified companies could see an impact on their occupation and a stronger impact in terms of reducing tariffs to cope with the fall.

A more serious problem

The arrival of sargasso alone is one of the problems that afflict Quintana Roo, since the issues that most affect the arrival of tourists are the perception of insecurity, the lack of tourism promotion and competition, which it indicates as disloyal, that represent alternative reservation platforms such as Airbnb.

The perception of insecurity is still the main problem in the region because just last year firms such as Posadas and Playa Hotels & Resorts reported the travel alerts that the United States made about traveling to Mexican destinations as one of the main reasons for its profitability.

Last year these companies reported the event (Sargasso), but it was not among their main reasons for weak performance. The main reasons had to do with alerts from the United States.

Experts warned about the danger of the phenomenon

Researchers Brigitta Ine van Tussenbroek and Rosa Elisa Rodríguez Martínez, both from the Puerto Morelos Reef Systems Academic Unit of the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology of the UNAM, had already anticipated the phenomenon of sargassum since 2018 and even earlier. by 2019 it will remain the same or even more severe than in previous years, which is an uncertain scenario since there are no studies that allow us to know the capacity of resilience of the marine environment before this phenomenon.

Van Tussenbroek has ensured that the sargassum phenomenon puts at risk from seagrass to the coral reef and if not addressed in a comprehensive manner, could even change the turquoise hue of the Mexican Caribbean, because the brown tide, as well as the phenomenon, is known of the sargassum could settle on the seabed and modify the chemical composition of the environment.

For his part, Rodríguez Martínez said recently that without a comprehensive plan that considers industrialization of sargassum and efficient capture on the high seas, the actions announced by the federal government will be insufficient.

"One of the problems is that it is thought that the sargassum is accumulated somewhere and the boat is going to be very easy to pick it up, but what we see is that it is scattered in spots, lines, distributed everywhere."

The specialist indicated that the isolated efforts on the high seas or the simple placement of barriers will not work on their own if they are not part of a comprehensive strategy, such as satellite monitoring for the precise location of the patches on the high seas; the coordination of the sargassum ships with the containment barriers, and the enabling of sufficient sites for the final confinement of the algae. 

This last point must be complemented with the industrialization of sargassum since there is no place to support the 200,000 tons of this alga that reached the beaches of Quintana Roo during 2018.

Rosa Elisa Rodríguez said that Quintana Roo does not currently have final disposal sites for the algae that is collected on the beaches, "nor are there statistics on the volume and frequency of the sargassum top-up (...) that implies that any industry of exploitation of the sargassum that pretends to establish lacks the knowledge on the availability of the raw material".

Source: El Economista