Current Seaweed Conditions in Puerto Rico: Updates on Sargassum Arrival

Stay informed on current seaweed conditions in Puerto Rico with the latest updates from local authorities. Learn about the expected amount of sargassum, how wind patterns and ocean currents can affect its arrival, and what alternatives may be available for tourism.

Current Seaweed Conditions in Puerto Rico: Updates on Sargassum Arrival
Sargassum washed up on a beach in Puerto Rico on Playa Santa. Image: El Vocero

According to the National Meteorological Service (SNM), the sargassum event started earlier this year on the southeastern beaches of Puerto Rico, instead of during the usual summer season. Meteorologists David Sánchez and Carlos Anselmi confirmed that the event has been concentrated on the coasts between Guayama and Humacao for the past four days.

The sargassum has also brought with it a strong swell event that affects the west, north, and east coasts of the island, as well as the coasts of the municipal islands. Bathing in these areas should be done with caution, as the strong swell is part of the seasonal transition process and will likely last until early April.

Despite the situation, Sánchez predicts that the day will be mostly clear with little rain, similar to the weekend, although some showers could develop in the island's interior in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) is in the process of purchasing machines to collect the sargassum, but they will not be available for use during this season.

Hazardous coastal conditions in Puerto Rico

Seaweed Update: Sargasso on Puerto Rico's Northern Coast

Tourists looking for current seaweed conditions in Puerto Rico may be interested to know that sargasso-laden waves have begun to arrive on the island's northern coast. Although scientists and mayors are concerned about the economic impact of tourism, there is hope for alternatives.

Satellite maps show significant movement of sargassum since the beginning of February, and it has already begun to cover the sand from Vega Baja to Arecibo. Although the amount of seaweed projected to arrive this year is not comparable to the record-breaking year of 2018, a large amount is expected in nearby waters.

According to a study by the University of Florida, sargassum could exceed the 54,000 tons collected in 2022. However, not all of the algae that enter the area will end up on the beaches. It will depend on how the wind pattern and ocean currents behave.

Climatologist Rafael Méndez Tejeda explained that this situation is similar to what happens with hurricanes. More sargassum is expected in the Caribbean, but the arrival of the seaweed to Puerto Rico will depend on wind patterns and ocean currents.

Julio Morell, director and principal investigator of the organization Caricoos Inc, reported that satellites show the presence of sargassum in Caribbean waters, although the peak of the season is between May and August. The Caricoos organization is working with a tool that forecasts the behavior of marine currents and winds, providing a better idea of how much sargassum to expect.

Tourists can stay informed on the current seaweed conditions by checking with local authorities and organizations like Caricoos.

The Impact of Sargassum on Tourism and Marine Ecosystems

Sargassum, an invasive seaweed that appears annually, poses significant challenges for tourism in municipalities where the industry plays a critical role in the economy. In 2011 and 2012, coastal towns were the first to report the seaweed's arrival, which triggers a process of degradation and decomposition.

As bacteria consume the algae, oxygen concentration decreases, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide (Co2). At high concentrations, Co2 can be toxic and cause acidification, which harms the mangrove oyster population, coral reefs, and the balance of the coasts.

Additionally, the accumulation of sargassum prevents sunlight from penetrating the water, adversely affecting other marine flora. The putrefaction process also produces a bad smell, reminiscent of rotten eggs, that discourages people from visiting affected areas.

Morell noted that the seaweed's presence prompted the evacuation of beaches in the Virgin Islands, where large accumulations occurred. On St. Croix, which depends on the desalination of seawater for drinking water and has no rivers, sargassum clogged the machines that make water drinkable, leading to an emergency.

Efforts to Mitigate Sargassum Influx in Coastal Regions

On January 4, Governor Pedro Pierluisi signed House Joint Resolution 229 into law, which requires the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) to develop and implement a mitigation plan with "concrete solutions" to address the sargassum issue.

As part of this effort, the Assistant Secretary of National Parks has initiated a bidding process to purchase six tractors with harvesters and six industrial processing machines to collect sargassum and return clean sand to the beach, using funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARPA).

According to Méndez Tejeda, adequate preparation by the authorities is crucial to managing the sargassum influx, emphasizing the need for proactive measures rather than reacting to the problem as it arises. To this end, non-profit organizations and coastal residents, such as those in Las Croabas, Fajardo, Palmas del Mar, Humacao, and La Parguera, Lajas, who have already gained experience in sargassum management, can also contribute to this effort.

While cleaning up the sargassum, it is important to keep in mind that removing the seaweed should not entail removing the sand on the beaches as it can lead to coastal erosion and worsen the impact of storm surges. Additionally, the cleanup process may also disturb endangered turtle nests. While sargassum does not affect the hatching process of turtle eggs, cleaning the beaches without the necessary care can destroy the nests and impede species restoration efforts.

Challenges Faced by Municipalities in Dealing with Sargassum on Beaches

The mayor of Cabo Rojo, Jorge Morales, has reported that Playa Sucia, also known as Playuela, located next to the lighthouse, is one of the beaches that has been severely impacted by the arrival of sargassum. However, the process of cleaning the beach has been made difficult due to the possibility of endangered species nesting in the area, and therefore, no machinery can be brought in as instructed by Natural Resources.

Morales explained that the cleaning process with shovels and buckets is a slow and arduous task, and he believes that some type of solution must be permitted. Similarly, the vice mayor of Fajardo, Glenis Otero, mentioned that sargassum has spread over the water like an "impressive carpet," making it necessary to use special machinery for cleaning, which they do not have. They have tried to collaborate with Natural Resources, but the cost quoted by private companies for cleaning the beaches exceeds half a million dollars, which they cannot afford.

The director of tourism of the municipality of Arroyo, Edwin Gutiérrez, acknowledged that they are aware of the expected increase in seaweed in the area, but they do not have the necessary machinery to remove it. In previous years, they have assigned employees from other areas of the municipality to support the cleanup work, but if the situation worsens, they may need to request federal funds to deal with the problem.

Yamil de Jesús, in charge of the Punta Guilarte Vacation Center in Arroyo, said that while the arrival of sargassum could help mitigate erosion caused by previous hurricanes, it also causes a reduction in the number of visitors, cancellations of reservations, and even refunds due to the unpleasant smell.

He added that removing the sargassum is not a feasible option as it would cause waves to enter the villages and create a bigger problem. Although the municipalities are willing to help, the dimensions of the problem make it primarily the responsibility of Natural Resources to handle to avoid any negative impact on the healthy coexistence of the residents, the tourist movement, and local businesses.

Short-term and Long-term Plans for Addressing Sargassum Issues

Ricardo Colón, the management officer of DNER's Northeast Corridor Reserve and an advisor on sargassum issues, shared some insights on short-term and long-term plans for addressing the problem. In the short term, the DNER will use floating barriers, similar to those used during oil spills, to divert sargassum to areas where it can be easily collected. However, sargassum on the shores will only be cleaned up if the amount poses a significant public health threat; otherwise, it's best to leave it be as it is mostly an aesthetic issue.

According to Colón, the DNER doesn't currently have the necessary equipment to tackle the problem effectively, but they are in the process of acquiring it. As part of their long-term plans, they will purchase specialized floating booms and two machines for in-water collection, one diesel-powered and one electric, which will be exclusively used in the bioluminescent bays. However, since the equipment is in high demand from other Caribbean countries that also face sargassum issues, it will take around a year to arrive.

Additionally, DNER Undersecretary Alberto Mercado Vargas stated that they are hoping to soon finalize the purchase of "sargaceras", machines that are similar to tractors and are used for collecting algae in the sand. They plan to provide support to municipalities with the most significant sargassum problems, namely Ceiba, Humacao, and Luquillo, through the regions.