You may be wondering about seaweed and whether it is washing ashore on the beaches in the Mexican Caribbean. We are seeing some sargassum seaweed landings this season, as we did in 2018. However, it is important to note that landings occur from time to time, they are not constant, and that not all beaches in the area are affected.
The authorities are monitoring satellite imagery to forecast when patches of seaweed may approach the coast. The Federal government has designated the Navy to coordinate the beach cleaning campaign.
What is Sargassum?
It is natural for seaweed to wash up on the beach from season to season, after storms and in the summer heat. However, in recent years we have been seeing larger quantities of two species of seaweed known as Gulfweed or Sargassum (Sargassum natans and Sargassum fluitans) coming ashore in the Riviera Maya, Cancun and other parts of the Mexican Caribbean. Similar landings occur in the Caribbean islands, West Africa and along the Gulf coast of the United States, including Florida.
The word Sargassum or Sargasso comes from the Portuguese word sargaço, which means “little grapes,” a reference to the air-filled bladders that enables this species of seaweed to float on the surface and move with the currents. Unlike other algae that are rooted in the seabed or attached to rocks or corals, pelagic or free floating sargassum grows and reproduces as it drifts through the water.
Pelagic Sargassum is historically associated with the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean where vast patches of it are a habitat for marine life such as microscopic plants, shrimp, crabs, sea horses, baby fish and turtles.
However, biologists believe that the sargasso that is affecting the Caribbean region and the coast of Quintana Roo has a different source, thousands of kilometers to the south. They have discovered that the seaweed is now flourishing in a second area off the coast of Brazil in the tropical Atlantic. Mats of it drift on ocean currents and are dispersed throughout the Caribbean.
Why has there been so much of it in recent years?
The causes of the seaweed proliferation or blooms have been attributed to climate change, which is triggering rising sea temperatures, and the presence of excessive nutrients in the water. Organic matter, fertilizers and other chemicals in runoff from the Amazon River and its many tributaries (and from coastal areas of other countries the seaweed passes on its journey north) provide the nutrients that the seaweed needs to grow and thrive.
What is being done to clean the beaches?
In the Mexican Caribbean, a campaign has begun to collect seaweed when it lands on beaches. Brigades are working along the coast and there are clean ups going on at the moment in Xcalak and Mahahual in southern Quintana Roo, the Tulum area and Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya.
The Mexican government has designated the Mexican Navy to coordinate initiatives this year. The Quintana Roo State government has divided the coast into nine sectors in which many hotels and resorts will have their own cleaning programs and will coordinate with the authorities and there are volunteer beach cleaning initiatives too.
In addition to beach cleaning brigades, floating barriers may be installed along certain stretches of coastline susceptible to sargassum landings or where it accumulates, for example in sheltered bays. The idea behind the barriers is to deflect the seaweed and reduce the amount coming ashore. It is likely that at some point in the future, specially equipped boats will also be used to collect the seaweed while at sea.
In Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the municipal governments have said that a portion of the Environmental Fee charged to hotel guests will be tagged for beach cleaning.
A joint approach
In the municipality of Puerto Morelos, the local authorities, hotels, conservationists and biologists from the UNAM (National University of Mexico) research station have joined forces and issued the Puerto Morelos Protocol on the best ways to collect seaweed and dispose of it.
They proposed an approach including boats to harvest the seaweed before it hits the coast, installing floating barriers and cleaning brigades that use methods that protect the sand and reduce the amount removed with the seaweed.
They say that seaweed washing up on the shoreline should be transferred to specially designated landfill sites covered with a geo-membrane to prevent salt and organic seepage contaminating the water table as the seaweed dries out.
Possible uses for the seaweed collected are also being studied. If properly processed, it can be used as a fertilizer, in the food, pharmaceutical, textile or construction industry or for biofuel. Some local companies are experimenting with making paper, cardboard and containers from seaweed. One enterprising Puerto Morelos ecologist has even built and donated houses for low-income families made with bricks containing compressed seaweed.
Keeping the beaches clean at Royal Resorts
An external company has been hired for the season to clean the beach at The Royal Sands, The Royal Caribbean and The Royal Islander in the morning using a tractor sweeper and a cleaning brigade will be brought in. If additional help is needed at any time, Gardening and Security staff will join in.
The Royal Haciendas
Beach cleaning takes place every day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for longer if necessary. In addition to the resort’s own mechanized beach sweeper, a beach cleaning brigade of 14 external workers has been hired. Some Gardening and Cleaning staff also participate for at least four hours a day and for the entire shift if the situation warrants it.
Grand Residences by Royal Resorts
At Grand Residences by Royal Resorts to the south of Puerto Morelos, a mechanized beach sweeper operates six hours a day if needed. The resort’s team of gardeners is also on call to offer additional support should it become necessary.
Turtle nesting season
It is turtle nesting season and conservationists will be monitoring turtles on beaches where there is a lot of seaweed.
Beach cleaning rules limit the use of heavy machinery on dry sand to prevent it from compacting or causing damage to turtle nests and eggs. Tractors can only be used on the shoreline where the waves break and during the morning, not in the evening when the turtles come ashore.
Seaweed fast facts
• Seaweed washes up on the beach naturally
• Seaweed is an important habitat for marine life
• The presence of seaweed does not mean that the beach is polluted
• You can still swim in the sea but with care. Avoid large patches of seaweed
• Showering after swimming is recommended
• Rinse out your swimsuit after use
• Seaweed will not sting you. However, microscopic creatures or insects may be trapped in the weed and can occasionally irritate the skin, hence the recommendation to rinse off after sea bathing
We hope that this information is useful. Check the Royal Resorts webcams to see the beaches during the summer. Further updates may be published during the summer on the Royal Resorts blog.
[Sources: Puerto Morelos information, Puerto Morelos Protocol]
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