Tulum seaweed update: massive sargassum arrival reported

The beaches of the Riviera Maya are full of seaweed, according to the pictures that are shown through social networks; mainly in the municipality of Tulum.

Tulum seaweed update. Photo: Sargassum Monitoring Network, Environmental conservation organisation
Tulum seaweed update. Photo: Sargassum Monitoring Network, Environmental conservation organisation

As stated by the Navy, the massive arrival of the seaweed is noticed with greater intensity this Friday, along with the few people from Municipal Services and Sofemat due to the epidemiological contingency represented by COVID-19.

Even the sargassum can be seen up to 20 meters offshore, which gives a reddish hue to the water on the shore and darkens the white sands.

Citizens, in general, are waiting for actions from the authorities so that the sargassum is not an additional problem to the COVID-19, since its return to activities is threatened by this phenomenon, which has been arriving in Quintana Roo for several years.

This was admitted by Tulum Hotel Association President David Ortiz Mena, who also said that this month when they will have a clearer picture of the gradual economic reactivation.

In an interview, the businessman said that although the problem was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of sargassum continues to be a concern for the sector, although it is hoped that this year the arrival will be less than that of 2019.

Unlike last year, the Navy is now better equipped, with sargassum and a coordinated action plan; however, in the private sector, there are no major clean-up efforts anymore.

"The seaweed has an important financial component because its combat has an enormous cost, and this aspect has not yet been resolved," Ortiz Mena said. "Now, faced with this pandemic, the finances of the hotels, municipalities, the state, and the Federation are precarious, and there is concern about how they will cope.

In the next three months, considerable arrivals of sargassum are expected on the beaches of Quintana Roo, especially on the Riviera Maya, warned the Secretary of the Navy (Semar). The latest monitoring report showed that a greater presence of this seaweed is expected on the beaches of Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Tulum, and Othón P Blanco, considered the most affected.

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Semar this month reactivated the strategy to fight this atypical phenomenon, in coordination with state and municipal authorities, civil society and private enterprise. During May, 2,674 tons of sargassum were collected, while so far in June they total 433.66 tons, making a total to date of approximately 3,108 tons.

To prevent the arrival to the beaches, according to Sipse, barriers of 1,200 meters long were installed in the municipalities of Xcalak and Puerto Morelos, as well as one of 650 meters in Mahahual, being in the process the placement of 1,200 meters of barrier in Tulum.

The Mexican Caribbean faces two threats this year that put tourism in check. First is the pandemic that has forced the total closure of the tourism industry for two months causing heavy losses that are difficult to replace and now that hotel activity has resumed it is the sargassum that once again challenges the sector as it has in recent years.

State Governor Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez has announced work in coordination with the Navy to keep the beaches free of sargassum and that consists of placing 652 meters of barrier in Mahahual and 1,200 meters in Tulum to prevent the sargassum from passing.

Although the tropical storm has increased the sargassum on the beaches, the Navy said that this year the levels of algae that arrive in the months of July and August in the Mexican Caribbean will be lower than last year.

In July and August when it does so with greater force, although the authorities' forecast of receiving less this year gives some hope to the sector. The Mexican Caribbean has deployed several campaigns to revive tourism during the pandemic and sell itself as a safe destination.

Ecological and economic disaster

Scientific evidence points out that the sargassum comes dragged by winds and currents from a new sea of ​​said seaweed, the old one is located in front of the United States, detected in 2011 in the equatorial zone of the Atlantic, between South America and Africa. There, the mouths of large rivers laden with nutrients, the remnants of human activity, desertification, and global warming, encourage its proliferation.

"It has more nutrients than the original sargasso sea, on top of that there are the problems of deforestation in Africa and South America," explains Brigitta Van Tussenbroek, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

"Everything is anthropogenic, it's not something natural", she adds about the phenomenon, which has also affected other points of the Caribbean such as Barbados, Guadalupe, and Bonaire. The Dutch scientist, with 30 years of work in the area, warns that the sargassum is accelerating changes in the ecosystem between 10 and 100 times, so urgent measures "forceful" involving the national government.

"There is hope but we do not have much time, it's a question of years, not decades," she warns. Once on the beach, the sargassum should be removed as soon as possible. Otherwise, it is broken down by bacteria that consume the oxygen in the water, killing animals that live in it, while its dark trail blocks sunlight, eliminating life from the seafloor.

In addition, it ends with the turquoise tone of the Caribbean, a phenomenon that could be irreversible because it is unknown if this ecosystem can recycle waste, explains Marta García, a Spanish scientist at the Institute of Marine Sciences of the UNAM in Puerto Morelos.

"It can become an ecological and economic disaster," says the expert. Rating agency Moody's warned this week that the phenomenon would hit hotel, airport and highway revenues and tax revenues. As a sample, it stands out the fall of 1.8% between January and April of passengers at the Cancun terminal, the second busiest in Mexico, compared to the same period of 2018.