Experts worry that the sargassum invasion is the Riviera Maya’s new normal.
A possible combination of climate change, pollution from fertilizers and ocean flows and currents carrying the algae mats from South America has caused the problem to explode.
And every possible solution has a significant downside.
“This is one of the biggest challenges that climate change has caused for the world,” said the government of the resort-studded coastal Quintana Roo state. “This challenge requires a joint, multinational effort and a global commitment.”
While tourist arrivals at the Cancun airport were up 3.3% in March, the seaweed-like algae threatens that trend by befouling white sand beaches and blue waters, as well as the air, with a rotten egg smell.
As it decays and sinks to the bottom, it can also smother the coral, and accumulations on beaches can make it harder for sea turtles to nest.
“In my humble opinion it’s a disaster that will eventually cripple the tourism, the businesses and, sad to say, destroy the local economy,” said Jef A. Gardner, frequent visitor to Playa del Carmen from Knoxville, Tenn., told the Associated Press. “This is a Caribbean problem on the east coast that goes from Cancun all the way past Ambergris Caye in Belize.”
Sargassum mats appear even worse along parts of Mexico’s coast than they did last year. The problem affects almost all the islands and mainland beaches in the Caribbean and eastern Florida to an extent.
“What you have to do is stop it before it even reaches the beaches,” said Adrian Lopez, the president of Quintana Roo’s employers’ federation.
Contention lines of floating plastic booms can be anchored offshore to catch the incoming mats of algae, but as Lopez notes, some resorts have very shallow coral reefs located right offshore so the booms would be less of a solution.
Scientists have set up sargassum tracking systems that detect the amount of algae heading for shores in the Caribbean, but it’s hard to predict when or where it will land.
Extracting it at sea risks the species that use the floating mats as cover for their young. But shoveling or bulldozing up sargassum once it washes up on shore is also a herculean task that can put at risk sea turtles’ nesting sites.
Now, some novel ideas for what to do with collected sargassum are springing up, such as using it as an additive for making bricks. But its usefulness as a fertilizer or animal feed is limited by the chemicals it contains, like salt, iodine and arsenic.
Local hotel owners and tourism industry workers are feeling abandoned by the federal government, which is planning a tourist train to connect the coast with Mayan ruin sites inland. It would depend on funding from tourist income.
“With Sargassum, there is No Mayan Train,” said a slogan launched by local businesses.
With information from The Associated Press