There is a sea on the Planet Earth which has no shores. It is over two million square miles in size, and it is completely distinct from its surrounding waters both oceanographically and ecologically. It supports roughly a million tons of plant life, which provides habitat for over 100 species of fish and 140 species of invertebrates, and many of them occur nowhere else. All this teeming abundance is in waters that are so nutrient poor that visibility can be a couple hundred feet on a good day. If not for this astonishing ecosystem, in this astonishing sea without shores, this place would be an aquatic desert.
It’s called the Sargasso Sea. It is contained by a clockwise gyre of four different ocean currents that circle between North America, Europe and North Africa, and it is about 1,000 miles across at its widest point. Its sea level is three feet higher than the surrounding waters, and the waters are warmer and saltier. The foundation of the ecosystem is a remarkable seaweed called sargassum (Sargassum natans and Sargassum fluitans), a highly unusual marine algae that is completely pelagic (free drifting). It reproduces asexually through simple fragmentation, and it can do so easily, and anywhere it goes. Because it is pelagic, it does not have to compete for precious real estate on the ocean bottom, and it also is not limited to shallow coastal waters like the benthic (attached) seaweeds, which not only have to find some substrate to attach to, but then have to be able to grow up into some light so they can photosynthesize. Sargassum has none of those constraints, and it grows in great mats and windrows in a sprawling, mid-ocean world where the coastlines are hundreds of miles away and the bottom is sixteen thousand feet down. It consumes carbon and produces oxygen in huge quantities. It has been called the golden floating rainforest of the ocean.
Sail east from anywhere in the US or west from anywhere in Europe and you’ll probably have to cross it. Sailors have known about it for centuries, and it has broken some strong hearts when the seaweed was sighted from shipboard by early explorers, and they thought they were approaching land.
For myself, I started reading up on it because, though we’ve always gotten a little sargassum on our beaches around here, recently it’s been hitting us in huge quantities. It’s ugly. It’s slimy. It puts out hydrogen sulfide gas as it decomposes and it stinks. The tourists are not pleased. “WTF?” my friends are all asking me—but in that quaint way we older folks have of spelling things out completely.
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Sargassum on the Tulum Beach
Well, I knew this would be a tough one and I was right. We’ve all read several articles in the popular press about this and none of them answer the question why, so I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find. A week into it I muttered to myself that it might have been easier if I’d been looking up the meaning of life. Then, on a whim, I did so. It’s 42. If you’ve read any Douglas Adams you already knew that. But anyway, bear with me, because I did arrive at what I consider to be an answer, and getting there was a pretty good trip, not just through the life cycle of one of the most interesting seaweeds in the world, but also the amazing Sargasso Sea, the world’s ocean currents, climate change, and agricultural and urban runoff as measured in continent-fulls.
It used to be thought that the Sargasso Sea was a one-way destination for sargassum seaweed. The model went like this: The sargassum grows in the north-west Gulf of Mexico (they’ve always gotten some on the Texas beaches), and that was thought to be sort of its nursery. Then the Gulf Stream current catches it and whips it around the southern tip of Florida and up the east coast of North America, and it settles out into the gyre that is the Sargasso Sea, and there the story ends.
The problem with that model is that it’s a one-way model—the sargassum goes in, and nothing comes out—and ecologists just hate one-way models. To any ecologist with a proper reverence for the Interconnectedness of Everything (capital ‘I’, capital ‘E’), if you’re looking at a one-way system, you’ve only found half the system. It wasn’t until last year that three Texas A&M scientists found what appears to me to be the other half. They developed a way to identify sargassum in satellite photos. If there is enough of it, it reflects wavelengths of light that jump right out at you if you use the right filter. Even if there is not enough to be directly visible, its presence breaks surface tension and dampens wave motion, creating what the scientists call a “slick” on the water. They started going through images, all the way back to the year 2000, which was the earliest year that the photos had enough resolution for this. What they found was that every year, a weather occurrence called the Azores High Pressure System creates strong south-bound winds, and they don’t exactly disrupt this huge North Atlantic Gyre—but they jail-break a bunch of sargassum out of it.
The Sargassum Loop System
This expanded hugely the travels that we understood Sargassum to make. When it breaks out of the gyre, it drops down through three different passages between the island nations that border the Caribbean on the north—between Cuba and Haiti, between Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and between Saint Thomas and Anguilla the sargassum is blown through the passages, and it ends up in the Caribbean, where the North Equatorial Current grabs it and sweeps it west down the same gun barrel that brings us our hurricanes—right at the Yucatan. Then the Gulf Stream grabs it and carries it around the north-east tip of the Yucatan and into the Gulf of Mexico, where some of it continues around the south tip of Florida and up the East Coast again to complete the circuit, but a lot of it eddies backwards into the north-west Gulf of Mexico, where it reproduces wildly and buries the beaches in Texas.
They’re calling it the Sargassum Loop System, and it’s recent news, cutting edge science, and a pretty big discovery, but here’s why it doesn’t answer the question my neighbors are asking me: There seems to be nothing new about it. As far as the scientists can tell, sargassum has been travelling this circuit all along, and it had only resulted in occasional, and not very heavy, strandings of sargassum on our beaches.
But another study got my attention, and when you put the two together you have something.
In 2011, there was a huge episode of this, and in 2012 a scientist named Johnson and a couple of colleagues did a very clever thing. You see, scientists have software models of ocean currents. There is more than one, and people and institutions have worked hard on them, and they’re very detailed and sophisticated, and they do a pretty good job. And Johnson et al had historical data about where the heavy loads of sargassum were, and on what dates. So what they did, effectively, is they dropped some virtual sargassum in their software sea at a few of those places and dates, and then ran the tape backwards.
They were amazed at where it ended up. It wasn’t anywhere near the Caribbean, and it wasn’t anywhere near the Sargasso Sea. It wasn’t even anywhere near the Sargassum Loop System (which actually hadn’t been discovered yet). It was in a huge, elongated eddy that lies just above the equator and reaches all the way from South America to Africa. It’s called the North Equatorial Recirculation Region. While the huge Equatorial Current is taking everything west, this eddy forms above it, bounded on its north by a weak, usually seasonal current called the North Equatorial Counter Current. This explained why there had been landfalls not just here in the Caribbean, which has always gotten some sargassum, but also in places like Brazil, and even on the coast of Africa in places like Sierra Leone, where it had never been seen before and people didn’t know what in the heck they were looking at. And the thing about this eddy, this North Equatorial Recirculation Region, is that it’s swimming in nutrients. It’s west end is right at the mouth of the Amazon River. It also gets iron-rich dust blown over from Africa, and coastal upwelling off that coastline as well. According to their software models, the sargassum stayed there for a “considerable time,” and it just loved that place. It grew exponentially, moving in eddy-like motions and sucking up all that warmth and all those nutrients and creating masses and masses of itself—and then the counter-current broke down. The eddy vanished, the floodgates opened, and all that sargassum started across the Caribbean toward us.
North Equatorial Recirculation Region
It makes sense when you think about it, because the two biggest rivers in the Americas are the Mississippi and the Amazon. Which brings us to the subject of continental run-off.
I’ve written before about eutrophication, when I did a piece on jellyfish. It’s a word you’ll be hearing more of, unfortunately, as we pummel this planet harder and harder, and sure enough, it figures in this story too. Looked at simply, eutrophication is when excess nutrients wash into a body of water and mess everything up. The first thing that happens is an algae bloom, and that could be anything from phytoplankton to sargassum, and then as that stuff dies, the decomposition process robs the water of all its oxygen, and you end up with what marine biologists call a dead zone. This happens in big ways and small ones—I know divers who can swim down our barrier reef and tell you resort by resort whose septic systems aren’t working. But rivers like the Mississippi and the Amazon empty entire continents of their nutrients, and that now includes fertilizers, pesticides, industrial waste and discharge from sewage treatment plants. You can see the dead zones on Google Earth now. Look for the little dead fish icons. They’re courtesy of William and Mary College and the World Resources Institute (and thank you, Google, for being willing to display them!) The second biggest dead zone in the world is in a plume running west from the mouth of the Mississippi, which is why the sargassum grows so riotously in the north-west Gulf of Mexico, and man, if you think we’ve got problems, you should see the sargassum in Texas. They get it on a classic Texan scale. The piles on the beaches (called wracks) can be ten feet high there, especially around Galveston. When it comes in, they call it the golden tide.
And sargassum isn’t the only seaweed going nuts from eutrophication. On the Brittany coast in France, they got a green tide of sea lettuce (Ulva armoricana) in 2009 that off-gassed so much hydrogen sulfide that it killed a horse and rendered its rider unconscious. In 2011 it returned and killed thirty-six wild boars. The sensational press coverage left everyone with the impression that the seaweed was toxic (it’s not, but hydrogen sulfide is nothing to trifle with). The cause was clear: factory agriculture. Nutrients come in (in animal feed) but they don’t go out (no one returns the manure to sender), so there’s a gargantuan net increase in the nutrients in the Brittany area, and they end up in the ocean. Measures to curtail factory farming caused layoffs, closures and protests. The tourist industry there is 5 million dollars per year. The agriculture industry is 11.6. They’re still fighting.
In China, on the shores of the notoriously eutrophic Yellow Sea, the largest green tide ever recorded hit the beaches of Qingdao three weeks before the Olympics and its sailing regatta. The Chinese rose to it in impressive fashion: In just three weeks they removed a million tons of Ulva prolifera from the beaches in an operation that involved 10,000 people and cost thirty million dollars. Then they put up a boom to keep the stuff out that was thirty kilometers long.
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So, the picture that’s shaping up in the mind of this amateur naturalist looks something like this: The sargassum spends most of a year, or even more than a year, hanging out somewhere it has never been before, which is in the North Equatorial Recirculation Region, and it circles and blooms and circles and blooms. Then at some point, the countercurrent bounding it on the north dissipates, the eddying stops, and the sargassum floods out, rejoins the Sargassum Loop System and buries our beaches. But there’s a huge question still unanswered, which, of course, is this: How in the hell did sargassum start getting into the North Equatorial Recirculation Region? Nobody knows. Johnson and his team say that the causes “have not yet been elucidated,” but they suspect a link with global warming.
A voice in my head is going, I should have known. Climate change, and eutrophication.Both.
And they could both in theory be fixed, because the good news and the bad news here is that they’re both anthropogenic. Anthropogenic is a scientific term meaning caused by humans. But I prefer how the great Jimmy Buffet would put it:
The entire Caribbean, including the islands and Coast of Belize as well as Mexico's eastern seaboard are under attack by Sargussum - which you might call seaweed. But sargussum is different from the traditional seaweed - the brown mass it moves in vast drifts and is a living organism. But, it's a blemish on the beaches and shoreline- and a major headache to clean because it rots and generates a foul odour. In San Pedro on Saturday - with a sargassum spread right in front of her - The Director of Tourism told us it is on their radar.
Karen Bevans, Director of Tourism "The seaweed, the sargussum, is something by nature which we are working with stakeholders in some way or the other to get the necessary equipment or resources to clean up the beach. most of them have employed additional workers to clean up the beach daily, which yes it's unfortunate that we have that situation, it do creates some employment for some of the persons out here. We are now just trying to deal with it how we can to minimize the effect on tourism."
Jules Vasquez "Is it resulting a lot of negative reviews on Trip Advisor?"
Karen Bevans "We have had comments, not a lot, because I think when it comes to natural causes, people are a little more patient and understanding. So we haven't had a lot but we have had comments on it yes and we are dealing with it."
Some scientists say the sargussum inundation could be a attributable to climate change.
The sargassum seaweed is affecting several Caribbean islands and has been reaching Belize as well.
A natural phenomenon is affecting several Caribbean islands and has been reaching Belize as well. We are talking about the sargassum seaweed which is sweeping up along the beaches of San Pedro Island. Only yesterday, The Tobago House of Assembly, THA has deemed the sargassum seaweed invasion across Tobago a natural disaster. The problem is so big that at least three million dollars has been allotted to treat the problem which has begun affecting guest houses along Tobago’s east and west coasts as guests have cancelled reservations as a result of the seaweed. During the Belize Tourism Boards 2015 Tourism Conference on San Pedro over the weekend, officials addressed the matter as it pertains to Belize.
On Monday, we told you how the coastline of Belize - like the rest of Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean - has been inundated with sargassum – a
type of seaweed - which has been drifting in from the ocean. It’s an eyesore and a nuisance to hoteliers and other tourism workers who depend on the
beauty of the beaches to attract tourists. Despite that, there isn’t really anything that they can do about it, except hire workers to haul the stuff
off the seafront.
Today, the country coordinator for the Healthy Reefs For Healthy People Initiative discussed the phenomenon with us, and what is causing it:
Roberto Pott - Belize Coordinator, Healthy Reefs For Healthy People Initiative
"From what I understand and people should know there's a huge area in the north Atlantic, they refer to the sargassum sea. So there's this huge
platform that actually for science it's a spectacle because there's a whole community and they equate it to the diversity of a rainforest that's out
there. Unfortunately one of the things that happen, we can argue about climate change - that they are changing current patterns at times due to
temperatures in the water I believe. And that causes some of that sargassum sea or platform to strip off and come into our area. And I really have to
empathise with the people who live along the coast because they've been overwhelmed with this pad of sargassum that floats in. Unfortunately there's no
easy solution to it. It's a nuisance because some of those organisms in the sargassum itself starts to decay, that's a very foul smell, so it's a lot
of discomfort for those people who live along the coast. It's simply has to be picked up and it make good landfill, especially in those coastal
communities that have to dredge and fill areas. I really think that helps to highlight the issues that Belize is facing because we have sargassum
locally in Belize and the more nutrient pumped into the water just adds to the growth of sargassum. But the sargassum that we are seeing is not from
local sources, it's actually coming across the sea."
Pott also noted that while sargassum is a developing problem for the tourism industry, it’s quite beneficial to the environment and marine wildlife. He
discussed a few of those with us:
Roberto Pott - Belize Coordinator, Healthy Reefs For Healthy People Initiative
"Lot of the attention has been on some of the positive effects that these sargassum has in some areas it's known to be used by loggerhead turtles are
part of their micro-tory route. Other scientist referred to is as like escape covers for our nesting turtles, which some are soon to emerge. You know
when they come off the beach they're easy prey for predators. When they have these sargassum maps, the turtle tends to be able to hide under these
sargassum mats. So other than the discomfort to people who live along the coast and businesses that have to now contend with these huge mats, huge
volume of sargassum coming in - there are a lot of positive effects. In fact some of the sargassum has been known to absorb nitrogen that comes off
from human sources, from our coast line."
And it’s not just Belize – in Trinidad and Tobago, the Tobago House of Assembly has declared sargassum a national disaster and has called for an
emergency meeting of Caribbean leaders to quote, “discuss the sargassum seaweed invasion across the region.”
Reports from residents of Northern Ambergris Caye are that dead fish are washing onshore at the Mata Grande area. According to these residents, hundreds of dead fish line the shores, making for a most unpleasant sight (and smell) for passersby. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve was notified and they have already identified the cause of the problem: Sargassum.
According to Hol – Chan Marine Reserve manager, Miguel Alamilla, this phenomenon is due to eutrophication caused by the accumulation of the Sargasso seaweed. Sargassum is a brown microalga that floats freely on the sea and never attaches to the ocean floor. This type of seaweed provides refuge for migratory species and it is an essential habitat for some 120 species of fish and invertebrates. However, in the past months, massive quantities of Sargassum line the coast, affecting aquatic resources and even tourism.
Investigations revealed that the great influx of Sargassum on the northern beaches of Ambergris Caye, especially at low tide, has dramatically led to a faster rate in its decomposition, giving way to the mass reproduction of bacteria, which in turn causes eutrophication. This activity causes negative environmental effects such as the death of aquatic animals. Alamilla believes that this is the cause of the dead fish appearing on the northern shoreline of the island. “Due to the accumulation of decomposing Sargassum and the increase of bacteria which consumes all the oxygen in the water, the living organisms such as fish perished due to the lack of oxygen in the water,” said Alamilla.
The proper cleaning of the beach may prevent such incidents from happening; however, recent research has revealed that getting rid of the Sargassum may not be the best option. According to research, Sargassum plays a role in beach nourishment and it’s an important element of shoreline stability. It also provides food for turtles and sea birds and brings in nutrients to species along the beach.
Residents in San Pedro are making the best use of the Sargassum, tackling the unsightly and smelly situation by turning it into a beach. Every Sunday, volunteers join the team of Build-A-Beach Campaign at 10AM, at the south end of the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge and then head out north to collect the Sargassum. The seaweed is gathered, spread it on the beach to dry, and buried in holes along the beach. In this way the Sargassum is used as a landfill nourishing the beach at the same time.
Anyone interested in volunteering can meet the Build-A-Beach team at the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge every Sundays at 10AM.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in the San Pedro Sun
Tourism destinations under seige by sargassum seaweed
Tourism destinations under seige by sargassum seaweed
Posted by The Reporter Newspaper on August 14, 2015 at 8:48 am
Beaches on islands in Belize, from the reef to near the mainland, are literally covered with unsightly, smelly muddy-brown seaweed.
It’s a seasonal phenomenon where Sargassum seaweed, originating from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, makes its way into the warmer waters of the region.
But while in the past this unwanted visitor has stayed for a month or so, fishermen and island residents say the stuff has been here since late last year.
Regionally, the problem has become serious enough to require an official release from the Caribbean Tourism Association, which states that the seasonal influx has “got the attention of the CTO and tourism policymakers and practitioners across the region.”
Apart from attention, there’s not much in the way of answers in the release, which acknowledges that the Sargassum seaweed can be uncomfortable and it takes away from the beach experience of tourist.
Announcing that it is treating the matter seriously and with urgency, the release goes on to state that “we have engaged a number of regional and international institution in our attempts to find solutions.”
Closer to home, in San Pedro, the Sargassum seaweed has been taken in stride, even as islanders and resort-owners wish it would just go away. The San Pedro Town Council has taken the necessary step to employ new staff to deal with the massive cleanup of public beaches on the island.
Those workers rake up the thickly packed seaweed, which is then made accessible to residents in low-lying, swampy areas as landfill.
Business-minded San Pedranos have even figured out how to make some money from the bothersome seaweed, which they pile up in their private vehicles and sell for up to $35 a load.
There is a downside to this, however, because it poses a threat to the beaches. When the Sargassum is raked up, sand is removed from the beaches also, and when the seaweed is carted away to be used as landfill, the sand goes along with it.
Island residents report that the Council tries to supervise the raking and cleaning to ensure that as little sand as possible is removed from beaches, which already face the very real threat of erosion.
For resort owners, the seaweed is a problem, since there are reports that some tourists have packed up because of the incessant seaweed. San Pedro Deputy Mayor Gary Greif acknowledges that, but says it is a very small percentage of tourists, and since there’s nothing they can do about the influx, it’s something they’ll just have to deal with.
Still, some resort owners claim that some guests have good-naturedly joined in the efforts to clean up the beaches.
The seaweed is more prolific further north of Ambergris Caye because of the currents. In that area, a group of volunteers is working to use the Sargassum seaweed to build up the beach.
Aptly named Build a Beach, this initiative, started by resident Dimas Guerrero, is exploring digging trenches and burying the seaweed under a layer of sand, eventually extending the footage of the beach when the seaweed breaks down and settles. Volunteers have had some success using this process on a stretch of eroded beach near Journey’s End.
At this point, all islanders and tourism stakeholders in Belize and the region can do is pray that the Sargassum goes away, since nobody really knows what to do about this phenomenon. The University of the West Indies is hosting a symposium on August 17th to look at workable solutions.
The Caribbean Tourism Organization has issued an official release on a seasonal visitor which has overstayed its welcome in the region. Sargassum seaweed originates in the Sargasso Sea and because of the warmer waters of this region in which it thrives, it visits periodically. But the brown clumps of seaweed have apparently decided to hang around, and by that we mean that they’ve practically blanketed beaches in the entire region. The release states that the CTO and the entire region are treating the matter with urgency, and offers the promise of an immediate search for a solution. In San Pedro, Belize’s premier tourism destination, Sargassum seaweed has claimed beaches there since late 2014, and today we found out that it’s a bother for some and a boon for others. Mike Rudon has the story.
Mike Rudon, Reporting
In Tobago, tourism officials are calling the influx of Sargassum seaweed a natural disaster, citing the worst year for tourism ever. In traditionally perfect beaches in places like Cancun and Puerto Morelos, Mexican officials say they will need to hire nearly five thousand additional workers to clean up the smelly mess, piled ten feet high in places. From the eastern coast of Mexico to Barbados, there is an urgent cry for an answer to this troubling phenomenon, a cry echoed in Belize.
These are the pristine beaches of La Isla Bonita, playground of the stars and many, many thousands of tourists. But they’re not looking quite so pristine in recent months, and it’s because of this seaweed which originates in the North Atlantic. It’s an eyesore, and the usually fresh breezes coming off the reef now carry the stench of rotting seaweed. The Town Council has done what it can immediately to deal with the aesthetics, by hiring extra staff to clean the beaches.
Gary Greif, Deputy Mayor, San Pedro Town
“It affects the environment. If you were to go in the water you would find some small dead fish. You can’t see it right now, but when it was at its worst it would go a hundred feet out so those fish that would normally get to the edge and go back out get trapped. When it comes to tourism it is a problem because of the stench. The seaweed that gets on the beach is not an issue when it comes to stench. The one that stays on the water starts creating an unpleasant smell and that is not nice for anybody, either for the residents or the tourists that visit San Pedro.”
The effort by the Council is largely futile – not for a lack of effort, but because there is just too much seaweed. This stretch of beach will be clean this evening, and covered with seaweed by morning. For some enterprising residents, that’s not exactly a bad thing. They’ve started loading up the Sargassum seaweed and using it for landfill, either for their own properties or for sale to anybody who needs it. The load in this truck would go for forty dollars.
Glen Turner, Sargasso Entrepreneur
“Whosoever wants a trip or two I would sell it to fill up their yard, you know. Because my truck is a truck that works for anybody and everybody, once they pay me I work. I do work around and I fill up my yard with it. I have a yard in San Mateo that I’ve filled up nicely.”
“That is a very common practice actually. There are entrepreneurs all over San Pedro that they saw an opportunity, and they have their private trucks and what they do they come along and scoop up the Sargasso that some of the town Council employees have put in piles, and what they do they take it to places like San Mateo, DFC and use it for fill.”
According to Greif, the Town Council concentrates on the public areas, while resorts have used their own resources to keep their beaches, clean, or as clean as possible. Ramon’s Village Resort has had to hire additional staff to keep its beach clean. It’s a full time job, seven days a week. Today employees were doing one final beach cleanup before an event planned for later today, and they’re staying upbeat and making the best out of a potentially messy situation.
Einer Gomez, Manager, Ramon’s Village Resort
“I don’t think that anybody can be upset with nature. This is something that’s happening naturally. It’s really not our fault. It’s not the Town Council’s fault or anything. The fact that they see us battling the Sargasso every day on a daily basis with an increase in staff…they kind of accept it and embrace it and are happy to see that we are doing something about it.”
There’s another, very serious problem – much more serious than the stench or the aesthetics. The cleaning of the beaches is done with the best of intentions, but when the seaweed is picked up it takes a lot of the beach with it which leads, inevitably, to erosion.
“The way we deal with it is that the same individuals that are selling the Sargasso, we’ve spoken to them and we’ve told them about the best practices, about how to get the Sargasso from the beach onto the truck with minimal erosion, and we tend to use our employees to supervise that loading and unloading of Sargasso.”
One group of volunteers called Building a Beach, the brainchild of San Pedro resident Dimas Guerrero, is doing much more than that, though. They’ve latched onto the idea of actually using the seaweed to build beaches. Volunteer Amber Edwards says the entire initiative is about bringing the community together to turn a months-long problem into a solution.
Amber Edwards, Volunteer, Build a Beach
“We dig trenches, the volunteers get in the water…they throw the Sargasso up on the beach to dry for the next week. We take the dried Sargasso from the week before, put it in the trenches and cover it with the white sand that was dug up. Basically what this does is it keeps the sand on the beach. When you clean the Sargasso and remove it from the beach, it’s great for landfill in other places, it’s great for fertilizer if you’re into compost or anything like that, but we want to keep some of it on the beach because there’s less erosion. If you remove the sand from the beach you’re going to lose your beach.”
And the innovative idea is actually working at this location near Journey’s End in Northern Ambergris Caye, where the group has been working. In fact, it’s been working so well that the Town Council has taken notice.
“He and his group are working every Sunday on building a beach, because we understand that we can no longer be taking all the Sargasso out, so we have to be proactive and think outside the box. And actually we have borrowed from their practices. We have two beach reclamation projects going on. It’s basically finding an area that has extensive erosion, packing it with Sargasso, putting a layer of sand and as it settles putting more Sargasso and just repeating the process on and on.”
“You don’t have to do it here. You can do it on your own beach. Come out one weekend and see what it’s about and then do it on your own beach or you know, help us as we move along. We intend to get as many volunteers out in the next couple of weeks because once we expand this beach we want to move to another area.”
In other tourism areas like Cancun and Puerto Rico, the sheer accumulation of seaweed which decomposed at the water’s edge has caused real environmental concerns like significant fish-kills. That hasn’t become a concern in Belize just yet, and it is hoped that the Sargassum will disappear before it does. Mike Rudon for News Five.
The release from the Caribbean Tourism Organization states that it has engaged regional and international institutions to find a solution to the Sargassum seaweed. But at least in San Pedro, the residents and tourism stakeholders aren’t waiting around and are doing the best they can with a messy situation.
Sargasso Situation Causes Tourism Cancellations in Caribbean, Is Belize Next?
With the start of the region’s high tourism season a few months away, some officials are calling for an emergency meeting of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, worried that the worsening seaweed influx could become a chronic dilemma for the globe’s most tourism-dependent region.
Even though the problem is not as bad in Belize, businesses and residents are still feeling the negative effects of the seaweed that keeps on piling up. But it seems that residents on the island of Ambergris Caye are busy tackling the problem and working on solutions before the situation gets out of hand like at other locations in the Caribbean and Mexico.
While beachside businesses are keeping their beach sections clean, the San Pedro Town Council is looking at possible methods to keep public beaches clean of the never-ending Sargasso. The removal of the seaweed from the beach is being discouraged as valuable sand is also removed in the process, causing more erosion. The San Pedro Town Council is closely monitoring such operations that are clearing Sargasso piled up by their employees.
Sargassum experts say that while the sargassum washing up in normal amounts has long been good for the Caribbean, severe influxes like those seen lately are “harmful algal blooms” because they can cause fish kills, beach fouling, tourism losses and even coastal dead zones.
Whatever the reason, the massive sargassum flow is becoming a major challenge for tourism-dependent countries. It is great to see that San Pedro Town residents are taking action before the problem worsens to uncontrollable levels and starts affecting the tourism industry.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in the Ambergris Today
Statement by the Caribbean Tourism Organization on the influx of sargassum seaweed
The seasonal influx of Sargassum seaweed on Caribbean beaches has got the attention of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and tourism policymakers and practitioners across the region.
Sargassum is a natural occurrence believed to originate in the Sargasso Sea, a two million-square-mile body of warm water in the north Atlantic near Bermuda, although some scientists believe the current influx was brought into the Eastern Caribbean through the North Brazil Current and because it thrives in warm, nutrient-rich water, the Sargassum simply spreads throughout the region.
It is an unwelcome visitor which can be uncomfortable and which takes away from the beach experience for our guests.
The CTO and our Caribbean partners are treating this matter seriously and with urgency. We have engaged a number of regional and international institutions in our attempts at finding solutions, among them, universities.
A number of theories have been advanced as to the cause of the latest influx, and myriad suggestions put forward for tackling the issue. We will be participating in a symposium being led by the University of the West Indies (UWI) next Monday, August 17th “to crystallize these myriad ideas and theories into workable solutions that can be implemented immediately to address our situation.” We are optimistic that meaningful solutions will emerge.
Among our CTO member-countries the issue differs significantly from one set of circumstances to another, as does the level of the incursion. Even in destinations which are at risk, not all beaches have been affected; in some cases it’s just on the windward coast and not the leeward.
But many seem to agree that what’s needed is a deeper understanding of how to tackle the issue collaboratively, with key stakeholders, public- and private-sector, contributing to the discussion. This is what the CTO is encouraging; this is what we are involved.
The Caribbean has countless attributes which makes our region a most desirable holiday destination. Our history, culture, cuisine, music, hiking, diving, bird-watching, festivals, etc, all make for unforgettable experiences. However, for most of our members, the beach is an integral part of this experience, the pristine nature of which we are proud. We are aware that the influx of sargassum can impact this aspect of our product and we will be at the centre of efforts to find a regional solution.
No, I mean the other sort. Smells worse, and just as much trouble. Piles of brown stinking seaweed, sometimes six feet deep, rot on beaches from Barbados to Belize.
“I don’t think it will affect the tourism in Tobago,” said Tourism Minister Gerald Hadeed this month.
UWI Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles disagrees. Last Monday, he called sargassum “the greatest single threat to the Caribbean economy I can imagine.” He wants a Sargassum Emergency Agency.
Sun, sand, sea and sargassum? Island economies depend arms, legs and neck on tourism.
But Hadeed says Tobago “is not only the beaches…it is so beautiful and friendly.”
Yes, up to a point. There’s more to life than beaches. Scuba diving, for starters. But stink up the beaches, and you have trouble. If in doubt, check TripAdvisor.
It’s not just the tourists. Fishing boats can’t work in sargassum-choked seas. Corals are smothered. Bacteria from decaying seaweed grab oxygen, leaving little for other life. Seafront residents complain of asthma attacks.
Sargassum has its fans. It’s “a golden rain forest of the sea,” says Hazel Oxenford, fisheries professor at UWI’s Cave Hill campus.
Sargassum provides food and shelter for young flying fish, turtle hatchlings, a whole food web. Ten fish species live only in sargassum, among them the cleverly-camouflaged frogfish, which looks like a scrap of seaweed. Onshore, sargassum stabilises beach sand.
There are a hundred-plus types of sea-bed sargassum. Two Atlantic species—natans and fluitans—are different. They spend their entire life cycle afloat.
Their tangled mats terrified Columbus and his sailors in the Sargasso Sea.
Today, it’s regional tourism chiefs who have the wobblies.
The sargassum explosion started in 2011. Why?
In normal times, floating sargassum has an annual cycle, following nutrient-rich waters from the Gulf of Mexico to seas around Bermuda.
The recent outbreaks are different. Mats form in equatorial waters, between Brazil and Nigeria. From there, sargassum drifts to the Caribbean in teardrop-shaped concentrations, half-a-mile across and maybe four miles long.
If one of those hits your beaches, you’re in trouble.
In Barbados, they mess up the scenic east coast and the mid-budget south.
The glitzy west coast, naturally, is just fine.
In Belize, all beaches face east. They have real trouble.
So, why this southern sargassum? The science is not yet clear. But climate change has warmed the sea surface. Replacing rain forest with agriculture has increased the nutrient inflow from the Amazon.
Years back, I remember teams of steadfast women employed in Barbados to rake up seaweed, and bury it manually on the beach. That was environment-friendly job creation.
Today, some hoteliers panic, using heavy construction equipment to remove sargassum. Machines lack the delicate touch. They scoop up precious beach sand too.
UWI’s Barbados campus organised a sargassum seminar last Monday. Government ministers from three countries turned up. The host country has a well-focussed Coastal Zone Management Unit.
Sue Springer of Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association spoke bravely of turning negatives into positives. She spoke of bussing guests from south coast hotels to the west coast—which sounds fine, until you’ve met Bajan peak-hour traffic.
Says Springer: “When there’s a hurricane, we have a hurricane plan. We need to have a sargassum plan.”
Weather watchers last week tracked Hurricane Danny as it moved west. Texas A&M University is now developing a satellite-based early warning system for sargassum.
Julian Francis, St Vincent’s junior works minister, wants to reap the stuff before it hits shore; a 300-metre boom costs around US$80,000.
Seaweed has a host of uses. For the Japanese it’s a foodstuff. Dried out, it can be fuel or fertiliser.
It can make pharmaceuticals, or MDF for construction. An ounce of Estée Lauder’s seaweed-based Crème de Mer was selling for US$110 a decade ago.
But as with most Caribbean manufacturing, there are snags.
There’s way too much sargassum for the beaches—but we do not have the year-round multi-tonne supply needed for volume manufacturing. Nor do we want low-cost but destructive mechanical harvesting.
Niche products by contrast use tiny volumes which won’t clear the beaches; and their edge is in branding and packaging, not the weed.
Oh gloom and doom. It seems to me Global Warming is an easy answer for anything nowadays. People get a pimple on their butt and shout 'Global Warming! I'm hoping our first big storm of this season will be a quick fix for the sargassum on the beaches. Danny has just entered the Caribbean basin, lets see what happens. Hopefully it will be strong enough to flush this out.
The sargassum phenomenon is swamping beaches all over Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Belize is no exception – and with tourism numbers for
the first half of the year sagging just a little bit – the blighted beaches can be safely scapegoated for the modest downturn. And what is government
doing to try and help? Today the Tourism Minister said they are giving duty exemptions to any resort or hotel owner who is importing equipment to
dispose of the Sargassum:…
Hon. Manuel Junior Heredia - Minister of Tourism
"The overall from the January to July it was .08 % only the difference between one year and the other. So I believe that even though there were little
factors, one that I could say that you mentioned privately a while ago the sargassum has been a minimal; I cannot say that it is just a minimal part of
that one because our beaches for almost 2 years have been practically 25-30 feet wide, the entire beaches of Belize with that sargassum. Whenever you
cannot keep your beaches 24 hours a day as white as it used to be, it is indeed a problem. There are some of the tourists that will come specifically
to be bathing in the shallow waters right in front of the beach of their resort.”
Government for its part have been trying with whatever equipment they want to get, duty exemption to be able to assists the hotelier to make sure that
they can the best that they can to have their beaches as clean as possible. I know for a fact now that in San Pedro there is Matachica that has gotten
equipment; I haven't seen it personally in the value of 30,000 US, in less than an hour will have their beaches clean. Grand Caribe also has something
like a turbine that they have bought. And according to the owner, he tells me that within an hour also they get rid of the sargassum. So hopefully we
will find the right solution to be able to deal with this natural phenomenon. But again it is a regional problem. If you see in the social media,
Cancun is worst that Belize. 4 feet deep and I believe almost 100 feet wide. I think it is St. Martin that had to close the beaches over there because
it was unmanageable. So Belize as a whole is going well and the beauty about Belize is that we can pull together, we search it together and make sure
we can address as best as possible.
The Tourism Industry particularly on Ambergris Caye, is drastically being affected by what seems to be a never ending blanket of Sargassum that has plagued the islands beaches. The unsightly Sargassum lets off a putrid stench becoming a turnoff for tourist who visit the island for its white beaches.
And with the Sargassum phenomenon not clearing up anytime soon, Heredia says his Ministry is looking at alternative options for beaches to satiate our visitors who clamor for a slice of the beach.
MANUEL HEREDIA JR – Tourism Minister
“If I am not mistaken the overall from January to July it was .08% difference between one year and the other so I believe that though there are little fastness one that I could say that I mentioned that privately ago that the Sargasso is a minimal I cannot say that and that is a minimal art of that one our beaches for almost two years has been practically 25 to 30 feet wide in the entire beaches of Belize with that Sargasso and that is nature government on its part has been trying to whatever equipment they want to get use the exemption to be able to assist the hotelier to make sure they can have their beaches as clean as possible, I know for a fact that Mata Chica has gotten an equipment in the value of US$30,000 that in less than an hour hey will have their beaches clean, Grand Caribe also has something like a turbine that they have bought and according to the owner within an hour they get rid of the Sargasso hopefully we will find the right solution to be able to deal with this natural phenomenon but at the same time there is the west part of the island that I can see the potential to be able to create the beach as beautiful as the front beach and so we are looking to different alternatives if something happens in the front we have the western part.”
Heredia says the San Pedro Town Council who is responsible for maintenance of the Towns Beaches, rake and dispose of the Sargasso on the Westside of the island on a daily basis. The local media on the island has reported that the Sargasso issue has never been this bad.
Sargassum, it is a regional environmental phenomenon that has been plaguing the entire Caribbean. In areas such as Cancun, the sargassum spreads four feet deep and about a hundred feet wide along the beach and in the Caribbean island of Saint Martin; beaches have been reportedly closed off to locals and tourists. In Belize, the situation is not as extreme, but it is still a eyesore for tourists and hoteliers alike in tourism destinations across the country. Aside from business owners hiring additional staff to clean the beach on a daily basis, the Government, specifically the Ministry of Tourism, has also been providing assistance.
Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism
“That is nature. Government on its part has been trying with whatever equipment they want to get, duty exemption to try to assist the hoteliers to make sure that they can do the best that they can to have their beaches as clean as possible. I know for a fact that in San Pedro, there is Matachica that has gotten an equipment—I haven’t seen it personally—in the value of thirty thousand U.S. dollars that in less than an hour, they will have their beaches clean. Grand Caribe also have something like a turbine that they have bought. According to the owner, he told me that within an hour also, they get rid of the sargassum. So hopefully, we will find the right solutions to deal with this natural phenomenon that is really been plaguing the beaches of Belize.”
“So while the sargassum is a natural phenomenon, it is not really an issue for the tourism industry?”
Manuel Heredia Jr.
“I wouldn’t say so. I would say that yes it has to be a problem because whenever you cannot keep your beaches, twenty-four hours a day, as white as it used to be, it is indeed a problem. There are some tourists that will come specifically to bathe in the shallow waters right in front of the beach of their resort, so it is a problem. But again, the industry realizes that we all have to come together and make sure that we can address it as best as possible.”
The San Pedro Town Council is using the sargassum as filling for the lower areas of the island.
Prototype of ship to collect sargassum in Quintana Roo. One of the functions is to give use as compost and avoid that it gets to the edge of the beach.
What is Beach Seaweed?
Beach Seaweed is a natural phenomenon
Beach seaweed has been problematic this year, but don’t stress if you are expecting travel to the south. Some of the white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of the Caribbean are darkening with an influx of decaying sargassum.
Brown-coloured seaweed, with small pods attached – also known as sargassum – are washing up on many beaches in Mexico, as far north as the Dominican Republic, and the eastern shores of Barbados, and reportedly smelling like rotten eggs. The decay and rate of sea weed found on the beaches has been so bad in recent years it has become a global issue, being blamed for everything from Rhode Island’s explosions in the sand to disrupting beach developments in West Australia. Sargasasum is a real nuisance this year, and has been a growing problem since 2011.
The Associated Press reported officials calling for an emergency meeting of the 15-nation Caribbean Community and the impact this beach seaweed may have on tourism in the coming months. The costs associated with removing the seaweed are high, and even when the seaweed is cleaned up, the smell can still remain. So what is the takeaway from this news? Is this a natural disaster or an inconvenient part of the natural cycle of ocean life?
Mexican authorities have told the CBC that they will hire over 4,000 temporary workers and spend close to $9.1 million to clean up beach seaweed along the coast, as well as research methods to collect sargassum before it hits the sand.
Here is what you need to know about seaweed in the Caribbean.
Why does beach seaweed wash up?
Sargassum grows and floats in open water in the mid-North Atlantic Ocean, called the Sargasso Sea. This long, stringy seaweed plays an integral role in ocean life, often a great nursery for sea turtles and other marine life. Small amounts of this washed up seaweed appear naturally every year from currents and the natural flow of the ocean, but scientists are unclear about why so much is burying the white sands of the Caribbean this year.
Marine life relies on sea weed for shelter and as a source of food.
Some researchers are suggesting rising ocean temperatures and climate change are to blame, while others blame an increase of pollutants and nutrients from the Amazon interacting with the warmer waters.
Since sargassum is a breeding ground for marine life, when it washes ashore, that life dies, causing a chemical reaction and a rotting smell. The beached seaweed in the Caribbean then becomes a breeding ground for sand fleas.
Beach seaweed alert! What does this mean for my trip?
There has been no official declaration of natural disaster or issue regarding visiting the Caribbean islands affected by the Caribbean and Mexico seaweed problem. WestJet has released an advisory, stating hotels along affected beaches are using a range of methods in cleaning up their beachfront properties, but states that some activities in destination may be limited due to the lack of waterfront property and mounds of seaweed. The washing up of seaweed in the Caribbean does not affect all islands, or all beaches on the affected islands, at the same time. To date, the problem has been seen in Barbados, Tobago, the Dominican Republic, and the highest amounts of washed up seaweed have been seen at Mexico resorts.
Marine life camouflage in seaweed to avoid predators
Should I cancel holidays or delay booking because of beach seaweed?
The influx of sargassum on beaches is considered a “force majeure,” meaning it’s weather-related and can not be fixed or changed. Seaweed in the Caribbean is a natural phenomenon that occurs annually, but this year, it is happening at a much faster pace and quantity. Since there is no advisory in place, regular terms and conditions regarding cancelling trips, with any applicable fees at the hand of the traveller.
The travel agents at tripcentral.ca have not yet received major complaints from clients, however, we are doing our best to keep agents aware of the issues. For travellers looking to book a vacation, we recommend proceeding with your plans, with the understanding that your vacation will still be safe and can include pool-side sunshine. Hotels in the affected areas are working to clean up the beaches, to allow for beach-goers to fully enjoy their vacations. With ocean currents and changes in the wind, the seaweed in the Caribbean is regularly changing course; meaning one resort could be affected one day, and not the next; the issue can move further down the beach.
Underwater seaweed keeping the ocean happy
How does sargassum affect the environment?
Sargassum can cause a large mat of algae that blocks sunlight for coral reefs, as well as settling out over coral life and smothering the reefs. Baby turtles may have difficulty hatching and getting through the the thickness of the seaweed, causing issues for hatch-lings. Positive uses of the Sargassum seaweed can be used as a bio stimulant to promote and enhance growth in plants. This includes organic mulch, organic fertilizer, animal feed and other uses in Caribbean agriculture. The seaweed is not limited to a tourism issue, and contributes to recreational usage by the residents that are dealing with this issue locally. Cleaning the beaches can potentially hurt the organic life that relies on the seaweed and is not just an issue for tourism in the Caribbean islands.
Beach seaweed is everywhere! When will it be cleaned up?
Unfortunately, we don’t know. Hotel and resort staff where the surge of seaweed is washing ashore are working to clear this, although due to marine life, machinery is not being used to protect the beach and not disrupt vacationers. Travellers should be advised that although this is an inconvenience, it is out of your travel agent or tour operator’s control and is being acknowledged and worked on in the affected areas.
Remember that beach seaweed is a natural occurrence, and despite the minor disruptions that come with the smell of the sand, there are still many ways to enjoy a vacation. Utilize the resources at the resorts, enjoy the comforts of the pool and don’t let this natural phenomenon distract you from having a great vacation. The seaweed provides shelter and nourishment for marine life.
Beach Seaweed provides shelter for marine life.
Beach Seaweed resources and videos:
If you’re interested in learning more about sargassum, its effects on the environment and possible benefits such as fertilizer, here are some resources for further reading and research:
Sargazo seguirá llegando, advierten especialistas Interesting article on Sargassum. Realizan en Cancún el Simposio sobre Ecosistemas Marinos de América Latina y el Caribe, donde hablan del arribo atípico del sargazo. Los destinos del Caribe Mexicano tendrán que lidiar permanentemente con el arribo masivo de sargazo en sus costas, pues el fenómeno seguirá presente, de acuerdo con especialistas del Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN), participantes en el Simposio sobre Ecosistemas Marinos de América Latina y el Caribe, efectuado en Cancún.
El evento reúne a más de 50 investigadores provenientes de México, Estados Unidos, Argentina, Venezuela, Brasil, Perú, Francia e India, así como a expertos de la NASA, de la National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura (UNESCO, por sus siglas en Inglés); de las universidades Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) y Autónoma de Baja California.
Los temas abordados versan sobre la pesca, la contaminación y la salud del ecosistema marino, la gobernanza, la economía, la productividad y el arribo atípico del sargazo, fenómeno que ha cambiado el paisaje azul de la zona costera del Caribe, al tornarlo color ocre, con fuertes impactos para el Turismo y diversas especies del ecosistema costero, como la tortuga marina, los arrecifes de coral, la playa e incluso el tiburón ballena.
El investigador del Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas del IPN en Baja California, Francisco Arreguín Sánchez, indicó que las tendencias “parecen indicar” que la llegada masiva de sargazo –una especie de macro alga parda- proseguirá en El Caribe, lo que implica que el fenómeno debe ser documentado para elaborar modelos predictivos a corto plazo que permiten contar con opciones de prevención.