Men walk between the sargassum toward a boat in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in May. Victor Ruiz/AP hide caption
Men walk between the sargassum toward a boat in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in May.
The water off the coast of the Riviera Maya was warmer than I expected, but far murkier. Endless pieces of seaweed, floating on and just below the surface, wrapped themselves like wet masking tape around my flippers and mask as I examined the second-largest reef in the world.
"It's the sargassum," my divemaster from Tulaka Diving told me resignedly. "It's coming over from Brazil and getting worse every year."
Sargassum, a brown macroalgae, is wreaking environmental havoc in the Mayan Riviera, located along the Caribbean coastline of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, as well as the Caribbean, coastal South America and Florida. The seaweed invasion is being fed by modern agricultural practices. As the Amazon is deforested to make way for farming, fertilizer used on that land is running off into the Amazon River and the ocean, encouraging blooms. Fertilizer runoff from other parts of the world is also fueling the problem.
The seaweed isn't just grouping in the water, but washing up in unsavory masses on beaches from Cancun to Tulum. There, it stinks like a cracked Easter egg that someone forgot to hard boil. The odor is a tourism problem. Local governments and resorts are struggling to combat sargassum with all manner of measures, which include employing sargaceros to rake it up manually.
Grand Residences Riviera Cancun, located in Puerto Morelos, collects the sargassum from its beach every morning with a special lightweight crawler that simultaneously filters out the sand. From there, the seaweed dries, then passes through a crusher. The staff then distributes the product like dirt throughout the property's grounds; since the odor is gone, guests don't even notice.
But sargassum is also a food chain nemesis. "It suffocates the reef, suffocates the beaches, and suffocates the turtles nesting," says Denis Normandin, a partner in the at-sea sargassum harvester called The Ocean Cleaner.
Ricardo Diaz agrees with that assessment. He's the project director at Aventuras Mayas, an environmentally conscious tour company, and the founder of the G.R.E.A.T. (Green energy, Recycling, Ecological toilets, Aqua protectors, Trash management) People Project.
"The massive arrival of sargassum to the Mexican Caribbean shores has resulted in the death of different types of fish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and crabs, among others," Diaz says. Marine scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, based in Puerto Morelos, say that sargassum is killing dozens of species in the Quintana Roo region.
Economically speaking, Diaz says, "the most affected are lobster fishermen, who have seen a reduction in supply."
This past January, the Riviera Maya News reported that the Tulum lobster catch was 80% below an estimated 200-ton target, with only one month to go until the season ended. This year, the season began in July and will end in February 2020. Catch statistics aren't yet available, but researchers expect this year's sargassum invasion to be larger than in years past.
The seaweed wads, thick as yoga mats, are doing untold damage to tidal and reef ecosystems by disrupting the photosynthesis cycle and depleting the oxygen in the water in places. Normandin, along with partners Francesco Maselli and Denis Jimenez, came up with one approach to tackle the problem: The Ocean Cleaner. It's a boat and trailer that sucks the sargassum up from the surface. After it's collected, Normandin says they turn it into "a compost mixed with food scraps from hotels." Maselli says that a single boat-trailer conveyor can harvest "up to 500 metric tons of sargassum from the sea per day, depending on conditions."
The tide, however, is currently against them: Experts say conditions are ripe for overgrowth, and they predict the Riviera Maya will receive between 800,000 and 1 million tons of sargassum this year.
Sargassum islands, formed by ocean currents called gyres, are entire ecosystems of their own. They offer shade from the sun; food for both fish and ocean birds; safety and camouflage; and even transportation for sea creatures as the mat drifts. A natural habitat for sea horses, crabs, turtle hatchlings and other juvenile sea creatures, sargassum islands are, when in balance, a healthy part of the ocean's life cycle.
More recently, though, "a recurrent great Atlantic sargassum belt (GASB) has been observed in satellite imagery since 2011, often extending from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico," according to a study recently published in Science. One of the authors of that study, Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Fla., calls Denis Jimenez's Ocean Cleaner boat design "an innovative and efficient tool to help moderate the sargassum influx."
Still, the GASB is more than 20 million tons – and growing. Normandin estimates that the seaweed, being fed en route from Africa through Brazil, doubles in volume every 18 days.
Others are also experimenting with new uses for all that seaweed. The Sargasso Industrial Association, a collective of five private-sector companies, is turning the macroalgae into, among other things, biofertilizer for food crops. It's already been tested on vanilla, cocoa, sugarcane and tomato crops.
Meanwhile, the Puerto Morelos Protocol, a joint effort between the town government and civic leaders to deal with sargassum, passed what is essentially a tourist tax to pay for clean-up initiatives. All hotels must charge guests a fee of about 25 pesos [U.S. $1.28] per visitor per night, says Daniela Trava Albarran, the general manager for Grand Residences. With 7,000 hotel rooms in Puerto Morelos and an average 85% occupancy rate during the tourist high season, which lasts from November through April, that's a generous chunk of change that can could model sustainability for other towns along the Riviera Maya and beyond.
These efforts are seeing results. As of Friday, Puerto Morelo's beaches were declared free of sargassum by municipal president Laura Fernandez Piña. But that, of course, can change by the day.
Aside from lobster, chefs in the region haven't necessarily noted rising fish prices or falling supply – yet. But that's largely because fishermen are following the fish with the mobility to leave de-oxygenated areas. Executive Chef Rafael Borbolla, who works at Grand Residences, which grows much of its own herbs and vegetables and buys other ingredients as locally and seasonally as possible, says he is going for deep-sea varieties. Thus he is avoiding species that would be in short stock or diseased from an excess of sargassum.
"The majority of my seafood and fish supply is sourced from the Gulf of Mexico, and the catch there has not been affected," he says. That may change, however, as sargassum, captive to currents, begins to hit other regions of the world, including Florida's coast.
Sargassum is also, apparently, edible. Jabib Chapur, vice president of food and beverage at Palace Resorts, recently started to experiment with the seaweed for dishes in his test kitchen. "Basic studies were carried out on foods such as those with crunchy textures, salsas, and gummies, which resulted in very good sensory characteristics," Chapur says. But he's not putting sargassum on the menu anytime soon, he says, because he can't guarantee that it's completely nontoxic.
It's possible that the sargassum could contain high levels of bacteria or heavy metals. Recently, high levels of enterococci were found in the sand in Florida's Key Biscayne, a barrier island, where sargassum is tilled into the beach. Scientists from University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University believe the seaweed encounters the bacteria from humans as it nears the shore. These levels ramp up as the seaweed piles up and steams in the heat, becoming the ideal incubator.
The best bet for beaches near Cancun with no seaweed is to head to the island of Isla Mujeres or to the leeward coast of Cozumel by ferry. The beautiful north beach on Isla Mujeres itself is almost always clear of seaweed.What beaches are not affected by sargassum 2022? ›
Punta Sur is technically not a beach, but it's an excellent place if you want to avoid sargassum. Enjoy some of the most spectacular sculptures in the region. The coastline is also breathtaking.What is causing the seaweed problem? ›
Seaweed is a brown-smelly type of algae that arrives every year on the white sandy Caribbean coasts. In recent years the arrival of sargassum has worsened, and scientists believe that climate change and the pollution of the seas is causing this phenomenon.What beaches in Mexico are not affected by seaweed 2022? ›
Sargassum Seaweed 2022 Forecast FAQs
Sargassum seaweed season in Cancun and around Mexican Caribbean finishes in October. Where in Mexico is not affected by seaweed? The Pacific and Gulf coasts of Mexico are not affected by sargassum seaweed.
All of Mexico is not impacted by sargassum. The Pacific Coast is sargassum-free, and in parts of Mexico's Caribbean Coast, the impact varies. For example, the resorts of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres have shown small to virtually no signs of sargassum this year.Where is Mexico's seaweed free? ›
Top beaches in Mexico without seaweed worth considering for a beach vacation include Carrizalillo Beach (Puerto Escondido), Punta Mita, Mismaloya and Bucerias (near Puerto Vallarta) and Santa Cruz beach and San Agustin beach (Huatulco).Can you swim in the ocean with sargassum? ›
Sargassum in the water. Sargassum presents risks to human health as well. In the water, it's harmless to humans, but the trouble begins once it lands on the beach and starts to decompose.Can you swim when there is sargassum? ›
The groups at risk are asthma patients, elderly people, babies and pregnant women. Certain animals, especially dogs, are also sensitive to the inhalation of hydrogen sulfide. He further cautions to avoid swimming in Sargassum infested waters as it can lead to skin irritation.Where are the best beaches in Mexico without seaweed? ›
- 01 of 10. Isla Mujeres. © Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images. ...
- 02 of 10. Cozumel. ...
- 03 of 10. Isla Contoy. ...
- 04 of 10. Holbox. ...
- 05 of 10. Cancun. ...
- 06 of 10. Isla Blanca. ...
- 07 of 10. Cenotes. ...
- 08 of 10. Kaan Luum.
Even though it sometimes disrupts our surfing, swimming, or beach activities, seaweed is a very valuable resource for wildlife. When seaweed is removed, the beach atmosphere changes, leaving many animals and plants without a place to live and eat.
At present it's thought seaweed stores around 175 million tonnes annually of carbon, or 10% of the emissions from all the cars in the world. To many scientists, this suggested the possibility seaweed could join other blue carbon storage in mangroves and wetlands as a vital tool in the fight to stop climate change.Which beaches have no Sargassum? ›
- Punta Mosquito.
- Holbox Downtown.
- Punta Cocos.
- Costa Mujeres.
- Playa Mujeres.
- Isla Mujeres North.
- Beach Playa del Niño.
- Puerto Juárez.
According to the latest satellite photos, there is still a large amount of sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean that will reach Mexico's coast until December 2022. This means that Sargassum will continue to wash up on Mexico's beaches until December 2022.How long does sargassum seaweed last? ›
According to Chaunmin Hu, a professor of Optical Oceanography, sargassum season generally lasts from April to August, though some years have seen 'particularly large blooms', including 2018 and 2021.Are all Cancun beaches full of seaweed? ›
Seaweed in Cancun could only be found on the central beach of Holbox Island, at Coral Beach Anchorage, or the second viewpoint of Punta Nizuc, according to a more current satellite picture analysis.Do Tulum beaches have seaweed? ›
Beaches with the highest seaweed count include Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and some points between Cancun and Puerto Morelos.Where can you avoid sargassum? ›
The best option is to leave the Mexican Caribbean for winter vacations and opt for the Pacific beaches in the summer. The beaches of Oaxaca are the perfect destination for summer vacations in Mexico since the sargassum does not arrive.How do you stop sargassum? ›
Removal by rake, tractor, or boat
The offshore seaweed barriers use netting or floating bumpers to catch or block sargassum. Boats equipped with scooping mechanisms can also lift plant matter out of the water, but they can be expensive.
China is the largest producer of edible seaweeds, about five million tonnes and the greater part of this is for kombu, produced from hundreds of hectares of Laminaria japonica that is grown on suspended ropes in the ocean.What country has the most seaweed? ›
Indonesia is the world's largest seaweed producer but why are prices so volatile? Over a million coastal people in Indonesia rely on income from seaweed farming, contributing to the country's rapidly expanding seaweed industry.
Isla Mujeres: Caribbean beaches without sargassum
Just in front of Villa del Palmar Cancun is Isla Mujeres, one of the most paradisiacal destinations in the entire Caribbean and that hasn't been hit by the sargassum algae. This island is an excellent option to make a day trip from Cancun.
Transmission. You can get stinging seaweed disease by direct exposure to the seaweed while swimming or wading in areas where the seaweed grows. Lyngbya can get under the swimsuit next to the skin and produce a rash, usually, but not always, in areas covered by the swimsuit.Is sargassum seaweed good for anything? ›
One of the properties in sargassum seaweed is sodium alginate which, when extracted, can be turned into a thickening agent used in pharmaceutical products and creams. The global sodium alginate market is worth around $624 million a year and is expected to grow to almost $1 billion by 2025, says Canto.Can sargassum make you sick? ›
Although the seaweed itself cannot harm your health, tiny sea creatures that live in Sargassum can cause skin rashes and blisters.What is the smell in Key West? ›
That ubiquitous smell is decaying sargassum, islands of floating, brown sea algae that is piling up along the beaches of Key West, the Florida peninsula, Mexico and other Caribbean islands. Happens every summer when the winds and currents come from the south.How do you get rid of the smell of seaweed? ›
The fishy odour characteristics and antioxidant activity of treated seaweeds were compared against the control sample (soaked seaweeds), and subjected to statistical analysis. Results showed that 3% and 5% lemon juice and 5% rice flour were able to eliminate the fishy odour of seaweed.Is sargassum getting worse? ›
Since 2011, floating brown algae called sargassum has been getting progressively worse.What is the safest beach in Mexico? ›
Located on the Caribbean Sea, Akumal is among the safest beaches in Mexico to visit. A must see for many Yucatan Peninsula visitors is the Mexico beach town of Akumal, to swim with the turtles in Akumal Bay.Where can you not swim in Mexico? ›
The three beaches where swimming has been banned are all located in Acapulco, a beach resort town on Mexico's Pacific coast. The water in this area failed to pass the WHO's cleanliness tests, which involve measuring the levels of bacteria present including E. coli, faecal matter and enterococci.What can be done with seaweed? ›
- 9.1 Fertilizers and soil conditioners. There is a long history of coastal people using seaweeds, especially the large brown seaweeds, to fertilize nearby land. ...
- 9.2 Animal feed. ...
- 9.3 Fish feed. ...
- 9.4 Biomass for fuel. ...
- 9.5 Cosmetics. ...
- 9.6 Integrated aquaculture. ...
- 9.7 Wastewater treatment.
Seaweed is an increasingly popular ingredient in cuisines all over the world. It's the best dietary source of iodine, which helps support your thyroid gland. It also contains other vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin K, B vitamins, zinc, and iron, along with antioxidants that help protect your cells from damage.Why do we need seaweed? ›
Seaweed can absorb an amazing amount of carbon dioxide from the water, storing up to five times more carbon than most land-based plants. We need to reduce the carbon dioxide in our oceans and growing more seaweed can help. Doing so can also reduce the carbon dioxide present in our atmosphere.Is seaweed good for the Earth? ›
Seaweed is one of the very few foods that can have a positive environmental impact. It can remove toxins from seawater as it grows. Farming seaweed has been shown to potentially have a negative carbon footprint, absorbing 20% more carbon dioxide than it produces, according to one World Bank study.Does seaweed absorb more CO2 than trees? ›
A type of seaweed known as kelp is being developed for its nutritional value and its ability to absorb and lock away huge quantities of carbon dioxide. Seaweed absorbs CO2 more effectively than trees. It also improves water quality by extracting harmful nutrients such as nitrogen from the sea.Can seaweed predict weather? ›
Hang a piece of dried seaweed outside and keep an eye on its moisture level. If it remains dry the weather will be also be dry and sunny. If the seaweed becomes wet and more flexible it is a sign of rain. Interestingly enough this can work.Is sargassum the same as seaweed? ›
Sargassum is a type of seaweed, or brown algae, that spends its life on the ocean's surface and floats in large masses. Unlike red tide and blue-green algae, sargassum isn't harmful. In fact, it's an important fish habitat that provides food and refuge for fish, birds, crabs, shrimp and many other marine organisms.What sea creatures live in sargassum? ›
Sargassum also provides essential habitat for shrimp, crab, fish, and other marine species that have adapted specifically to this floating algae. The Sargasso Sea is a spawning site for threatened and endangered eels, as well as white marlin, porbeagle shark, and dolphinfish.Do Florida beaches have sargassum? ›
Over the past several years, South Florida and the Caribbean have experienced high levels of sargassum in coastal waters and on local beaches.Why seaweed is the future? ›
“There are a lot of environmental and economic benefits that come with enabling the seaweed farming industry,” said Bavington. “It can help create jobs along coastal regions around the world and boost resilience, as well.”Why does Riviera Maya have so much seaweed? ›
They are washed up by currents from the Sargasso Sea, a sea between Europe and America, in which many brown algae grow. Due to these currents, brown algae are washed towards Mexico and the Caribbean, especially in the summer months.
Beaches in Cancún are a popular reason to visit this city, as is the nightlife scene. Many beaches offer both, with gold and white sand, turquoise waters, and a party atmosphere. Here you can relax on the soft sands and snorkel, surf, or swim in the endless, clear sea.What time of year is sargassum? ›
In Mexico, sargassum seaweed season is generally between May and October each year. If you travel to the Caribbean coast of Mexico outside of that time period you can generally expect to avoid large mats of seaweed on the beaches. What is this? Cancun to Tulum seaweed map in March 2022.What animals eat sargassum? ›
The main predators to the sargassum fish are sea birds and larger fishes. They can escape underwater predators by jumping out of the water onto the floating seaweeds.Why is the water brown in Cancun? ›
Why is there seaweed in Cancun? Seaweed is a brown-smelly type of algae that arrives every year on the white sandy Caribbean coasts. In recent years the arrival of sargassum has worsened, and scientists believe that climate change and the pollution of the seas is causing this phenomenon.What hotels in Cancun have less seaweed? ›
The tip of the hotel zone that is home to The Riu hotels, and the Fiesta Americana Cancun Villas, is reporting low levels of sargassum on its beaches. Further down south within the main hotel zone Punta Nizuc beach is another name on the list of beaches with low levels of sargassum.Why is the water so blue in Cancun? ›
This is because water molecules absorb green, orange, yellow, and every other color except blue. Blue color is reflected as the sunlight hits Cancun´s coast.How can we prevent sargassum in Mexico? ›
You can travel to beaches that are free of seaweed. Some places like parts of Cozumel are good bets, or you can travel further to spots like Isla Holbox or Progreso. Keep an eye on the Sargassum maps, which you can do with an easy Google search or checking Facebook pages that monitor the seaweed.Why is Mexico getting so much seaweed? ›
The 2022 sargassum season began at the beginning of spring due to a rise in sea temperature, which accelerates the reproduction of the seaweed. As the days get warmer, the presence of sargassum is expected to increase.How do you keep seaweed off the beach? ›
Floating aquatic plant booms are designed to control the impact of seaweed, sargassum, algae, and other invasive marine plants protecting lakes, beaches and hotels along the shoreline. They can either be used seasonally or long-term to secure an area from aquatic plants and debris that would otherwise litter beaches.Is seaweed a problem in Mexico? ›
In Mexico, the boom in sargassum poses a "significant threat" to the country's post-pandemic tourism recovery, analysts from bank BBVA warn. Particularly in Quintana Roo state, home to destinations like Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen.
- Punta Mosquito.
- Holbox Downtown.
- Punta Cocos.
- Costa Mujeres.
- Playa Mujeres.
- Isla Mujeres North.
- Beach Playa del Niño.
- Puerto Juárez.
When washed ashore, Sargassum will decompose (rot). Rotting Sargassum causes the production of hydrogen sulfide gas which smells like rotten eggs.Can you spray seaweed? ›
Most of the organic seaweed feed I use is absorbed through the leaves on your lawn. I apply it using a sprayer (it's liquid) and I make sure that I use a fine nozzle for really accurate application.How long does seaweed take to decompose? ›
Shredded or chopped seaweed cut in 1- or 2-inch will decompose in a few weeks compared with six months or more for uncut fronds so, as with other materials, it is better to cut the seaweed into small pieces.What is a seaweed barrier? ›
The sargassum seaweed barriers are designed to prevent Sargassum, seaweed, and other enteromorpha from spreading into beaches, resorts, docks or ports. It is also useful to control floating trash and debris.. It is made of heavy duty PVC float barrier with bottom mesh skirt.Can seaweed stop climate change? ›
Seaweed has been removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for at least 500 million years. Recent studies suggest that wild seaweed continues to do humanity a solid by sequestering 173 million metric tons annually. The average square kilometer of seaweed can sequester more than a thousand metric tons.Why is the water brown in Tulum? ›
What is sargassum? It is a brown floating seaweed that reproduces rapidly and feeds on sunlight. Its origin is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between the north of Africa and the north of South America, where the so-called "Sargasso Sea" is located.