Sargassum, the plague that threatens to turn Tulum into a pestilent swamp
On the Mexican beach of Tulum, about 200 meters from a pyramid that the Mayans built just where the waves break in foam, a boat lies on a thick and pestilent mantle of sargassum, whose brown color completely eclipses the white sand of the shore.
The idle boat exhibits the scarcity of activity on this beach and in others of the world famous Riviera Maya, where few tourists sunbathe, between resigned and bored, or retreat to the pools of their accommodations due to these algae, which gives off a foul odor, seriously affects the ecosystem and obviously hits tourism.
Except for those willing to swim about 50 meters offshore or those who pay a boat ride to reach clear waters, the rest of the tourists endure the scorching sun. That is better than plunging into the miasmas of the seaweed that paint the Mexican Caribbean rust, whose characteristic turquoise color is absent in this altered paradise.
"I had no idea how bad it was!" Says Chase Gladden, a 28-year-old executive from San Francisco, United States, next to the carpet of seaweed almost 10 meters wide, whose length is lost on the horizon.
The explosive escalation in the arrival of Sargassum, native to the Atlantic, threatens to irreversibly damage this ecosystem in southeastern Mexico and turn it into a pestilential swamp.
"It will make a big blow to tourism if people do not want to come here because they do not want to deal with so much seaweed," adds Gladden, who mostly regrets the smell of rotten eggs that bounces when it decomposes. Livia Vendramini, 26, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, is disappointed. "We come here to see a blue, crystalline sea, and to see this sea as (that of) a port is very sad," she says. With two friends, she was forced to leave her hotel in Playa del Carmen, where she says that the sargasso did not forgive any beach, and travel 65 km to Tulum. "We have to leave the city, come here, take a boat to go to another place to see what we wanted," she complains.
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 sargasso 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 sea floor.
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.
Sargassum came to stay
About 100 km north of Tulum, in Puerto Morelos, architect Carlos Gosselin remembers dealing with devastating hurricanes and predatory fish pests that threatened this bastion of tourism. A veteran of four decades in the Riviera Maya, an emporium modeled since the 1970s by the ingenuity and ambition of Mexican businessmen and governments, Gosselin recognizes the crisis.
Sargasso "came to stay," says the hotelier, leader of the Puerto Morelos Protocol, a civil organization that implements actions to confront the phenomenon. Made up of hoteliers from Puerto Morelos, the mayor's office and key actors such as the UNAM Institute, the Protocol has made progress in monitoring and collecting the algae, and seeks to take advantage of it industrially.
Their studies determined that after the first wave in 2015, the phenomenon skyrocketed in 2018 with the arrival of 24 million cubic meters, equivalent to 3,000 football fields covered by a meter of sargasso and that the critical period runs from May to October.
They also developed an effective maritime barrier to prevent the passage of sargassum to the coast and a boat that collects, compresses and packages them at sea. Thus, 13 of the 18 km of beaches in Puerto Morelos are free of the plague, says Gosselin.
"Puerto Morelos has become a laboratory, an indicator of what can be done and what can not be done."
But the neighbors of the small municipality also fight the infestation. Dozens of them, armed with rakes, shovels, and wheelbarrows, remove the sargassum from the beach next to the central plaza since dawn and until noon, a task that the city has been organizing daily since last year.
"No way, we have to give it the best attitude so that tourism continues to come," says Arlette Escudero, a 34-year-old municipal official.