Sargassum appears on Yucatan beaches
Two weeks after the start of the holiday season, Progreso, the main port on the Yucatan coast, showed the presence of algae.
Although they are blotches and are not yet seen in large quantities as in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Solidaridad and Tulum, the neighboring state, it was clear that the shore of the beach was covered by this type of algae.
No cleaning operation was observed, but it was reported that part of that sargassum was already seen in other ports such as Chelem, Chicxhulub, and Chuburna, among others near the port of Progreso.
Although the holiday season starts the second week of July, from now on, the Yucatecan ports prepare for the reception of thousands of visitors.
The presence of algae could be an inconvenience on local beaches during these days of great tourist influx.
Last December, after the passage of the 16th cold front by the state, the presence of sargassum on the shores of the beaches of Progreso was noticeable, mainly in areas of Chicxulub Puerto; however, the problem had not been as noticeable as now.
Beaches of Progreso, Yucatán
The emerald green beaches of Yucatan are an option to cool off with your family, visit a nearby cenote, admire the mangrove forests, the archaeological sites and the species of flora and fauna typical of the Yucatan coast.
During a trip made in Yucatan, from Chuburna to Dzilam de Bravo passing through Progreso, it is possible to admire a set of clean beaches, to the point that Yucatecan families and national and foreign visitors can enjoy cleanliness and tranquility of the beaches.
Telchac is mostly populated by summer houses and some hotels, but that does not prevent enjoying the small coastal population of beaches and sport fishing in some points. In Telchac, families who live nearby often go to the small boardwalk to eat and stroll in the afternoons and of course to dive into the clean waters of the beach of this small Yucatan port that does not escape the arrival of foreign visitors although in a smaller scale than the beaches of the Riviera Maya.
Santa Clara, one of the most emerald beaches and with the least propaganda, is also one of the most tranquil and free of sargassum, algae that at this time has caused a strong crisis on the beaches of Quintana Roo, where the hotel sector is suffering from its occupation in almost 40 percent of its availability, due to the bad "recommendation" that gives the great wave of sargassum that has arrived at this time.
In the same route of Yucatan, entering a few kilometers to the road that leads to Dzemul, it is possible to admire the pink flamingos, this species has its main refuge in the mangroves of the saline lagoon and see them in the middle of a pink lake, without having to go to Celestun, is a plus added to the visit of the beaches of Yucatan.
Finally, in San Crisanto, located about 80 kilometers from the capital of Yucatan. It is possible to observe the "eyes of water", especially one, which attracts domestic and foreign tourists attracted by the presence of marine species that have adapted to the fresh water that possibly arises from an underground cenote.
Sargassum is a serious threat to the cenotes
The cenotes pay very dearly the price of being the "plan B" of tourists who can not go to the beach since it is affected by sargassum. On the one hand, they become overcrowded, and on the other, the inadequate final handling of the algae causes the chemicals it releases to reach these bodies of water and contaminate them.
For Alejandro López Tamayo, coordinator of scientific research and conservation in Centinelas del Agua, the cenote is an entity with virtually no identity, as it is not even included in the national water law with its own definition.
The inadequate final disposal of sargassum is a problem that directly affects these bodies of water; "We have identified clandestine sargasso landfills and we have already identified the leachates that it produces". Some sites already have eight or 10 months acting as dumps without being suitable for it; that is, they do not have a geomembrane that prevents the chemicals produced from entering the subsoil and reaching underground water bodies.
The researcher recalled that the decomposition of sargassum "has traces of arsenic and generates hydrogen sulfide, which promotes that the rock is diluted much faster and the decomposition of organic matter is reaching the aquifer."
"We are doing a vicious cycle that we must attend: we are removing the problem from the coast and taking it to the jungle, therefore it enters the aquifer and from there it goes back to the coast."
The sites for final disposal of sargassum should be prepared as if they were a conventional garbage dump, with a geomembrane that captures leakages and allows them to be treated. The cenotes do not have the same capacity to regenerate other bodies of water, such as the oceans: "a body of underground water, once it is contaminated, is almost impossible to remedy."
Quintana Roo has between 1,300 and 1,500 kilometers of underground rivers and in the Yucatan Peninsula, there are approximately six to ten thousand cenotes, two thousand 500 of them in the state.
One of the goals of environmentalists is that the new national water law defines the concept of karstic system and cenotes because, despite their importance, they are not included in the documents. From there, it is possible to establish the appropriate regulations and avoid their contamination, which is why they participate in the analysis forums to integrate a new national water law.
"If we do not have these regulations, we will reach the overcrowding of a cenote and we do not know its capacity, some are already receiving more tourists than they can support."
Being a body of groundwater, the management of the cenote must be different from that of a body of surface water but they are still seen as a "shallow lagoon".
"We need to generate regulations that allow for better practices to maintain the sustainable use of cenotes. Inspection and surveillance are needed, and a management program is requested from the providers of tourist services in these places." In Quintana Roo only two municipalities have their own regulations: Tulum and Solidarity.
How to avoid overcrowding
With the sargassum covering the beaches, the cenotes are seen as an entertainment option, but this implies that more nutrients are entering these bodies of water:
"If before two or three people entered the day maybe the same underground water system I could dilute it little by little, but if you add a thousand people to that same cenote a day, they are already higher concentrations of chemical elements."
As part of the practices to avoid contamination is that the visitors do not enter with chemical elements in the body, such as gel, creams or blockers. Some of the damage is already visible: in some bodies of water, there is erosion in the surrounding soils. The challenge is to achieve official Mexican standards specific to the region, for the management and sustainable use of cenotes.
Octopuses, sharks, turtles and species threatened by sargassum
The proliferation of sargassum on the coasts affects 72 marine species, mostly eels, fish, octopus, sharks, and turtles.
Other affected species are the so-called bull fish and others of commercial importance such as grouper, mojarra, lobster, snapper and some organisms that live buried in the bottom of the sea.
The main cause of death of these species is the decrease of oxygen and filtration of light into the sea that causes the presence of this alga on the surface, according to research by the Institute of Limnology and Marine Sciences of the National University Autonomous of Mexico.
Sargassum has become an environmental problem that advances and increases every year in the world, so environmental groups call for urgent solutions from governments, scientists and businessmen.
The accumulation of this seaweed is known since the time of Christopher Columbus, when it crossed the sea of the Sargasso, in the North Atlantic area.
There are several theories that try to explain the phenomenon, among them the ones that point out that it is due to the warm waters of the ocean due to global warming, the use of fertilizers that reach the ocean and the decrease of hurricanes in the world that prevent their dispersion.
Other theories place the origin of sargassum in the deforestation of the Amazon region, in Brazil, and even in regions of Africa, because they assume that desert dust provides sufficient nutrients for the increase of seagrass.
It has also been considered to be landslides of the Sargasso Sea, which is actually a large area of the Atlantic Ocean, between North America, the Caribbean, and northwestern Africa, which contains floating algae of the so-called Sargassum.
The sea of the Sargasso is the first island of garbage known in history, because it also concentrates different plastics today, according to the article "Influence of the wind and maritime circulation in the formation of the garbage islands in the world", the researchers Martín A. Meléndez Valencia and Patricia Isabel Meléndez Torres, published in the journal Science and Society.
Sargassum usually grows adhered to rocks near the coast, but has adapted to life "pelagic and now floats in the upper layers of the ocean."
The factors that allow it to remain and reproduce are due, in part, to the calm waters and their reproduction by fragmentation, which when detached each piece gives rise to another new plant.
Sargasso grows twice every 18 days, revealed a 2018 study by the Tourism Commission of the Chamber of Deputies of Mexico, which indicates that there are many proposed solutions, such as the generation of electric power, the creation of sleepers for trains, adobes, fertilizers, and many more alternative uses.
Sargassum could be used as fuel to generate electricity
The Scientific Research Center of Yucatan (CICY) indicated that one way to use the large sargassum banks that land on the beaches of the region would be as a fuel to generate electricity.
The director of that research center, Pedro Iván González Chi, explained in an interview for Notimex, that it is a material that can be burned very easily and, therefore, can generate energy as other combustible products do.
However, this would also require studies and investments to develop a system that allows its use in a correct way so as not to generate pollution, although ultimately the burning of sargassum is much less polluting than coal and oil derivatives.
"It's a simple solution, but one that requires investments and guarantees that there will be enough sargassum available to give it that use and that the investment is profitable." He explained that the origin of sargassum that today impacts the Mexican Caribbean, is not national, "that sargassum does not occur on our coastlines." The problem is not a new problem either, and it is an international problem because the algae travel thousands of kilometers and arrive to our coasts after a long trip through the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico."
The ideal would be to start coordinating efforts among all affected sectors and seek solutions and even partnerships with other countries to gradually avoid the sargassum reaching the beaches and start its decomposition process.
It is also advisable to start developing scientific solutions that allow the use of sargassum, such as fertilizers or as a source of alternative fuel to generate energy, as mentioned at the beginning.
For years, the CICY has experimented with sargassum for possible use as fertilizer and for the production of edible fungi, and one of the main challenges is to obtain the ideal material.
Not all sargassum is useful, there are many varieties and some of them are capable of accumulating large amounts of heavy metals that are dangerous for human health, that's why you have to make a selection, and that selection is almost impossible to do when the material starts to decompose.
Once the decomposition begins, the ideal would be to use it as fuel to generate energy, but in any case, it requires a good investment of economic, human and material resources that have not been done so far.
For now, large sargassum stains have passed over the Yucatan coasts, thanks to the currents of the Gulf of Mexico, which have moved them towards Florida, in the United States, and the beaches of the entity look practically clean in comparison with those of the Mexican Caribbean area.