Sargassum Seaweed Attacks Caribbean Beaches

According to recent media accounts, an influx of the disruptive and hated-by-brides seaweed known as sargassum has washed up around the Caribbean and Atlantic beaches for summer 2019.

I first lived through it in 2015 on a trip to Mexico’s east coast, embedded with the troops fighting the onslaught of seaweed. It came back with force in the summer of 2018 (1,000 square miles of seaweed) and returned in March of this year — much earlier than the summer season. The unusual volume of sargassum, brown strands of algae that originate in the Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea, has been an economic nightmare for destinations.

Sargassum found on the beach
Sargassum found on the beach in Cuba in 2014. Photo By Bogdan Giusca, Wikimedia Commons

This year again, sargassum is focused on the East and South coasts of many islands including Barbados, the Antilles from Cuba to the Dominican Republic, with potential to spread to more of the Caribbean, Yucatan peninsula and Florida. In Fort Lauderdale, for example, beaches were littered with sargassum during our April 2019 visit but at more manageable levels than in some destinations, where resorts are closing and shifting business to another one of their properties.

Where will you find sargassum?

As of June 2019, the sargassum outbreak is reported by Sargassum Monitoring to be impacting parts of Quintana Roo from the Si’an Kaan Biosphere to north of Tulum, Colombia, Brazil, Martinique and other islands, many parts of Florida up through North Carolina and even Galvenston, Texas.

It’s critical that travelers contact their resorts directly to inquire about the current status of this naturally occuring — an unpreventable — event.

Barbados beach seaweed cleanup
On Barbados, a government beach cleanup of seaweed is underway. c. Barbados Government Information Service

Visitors may find their resort beach pristine, for example, while the island’s port is clogged rendering ferry systems unusable. Some fishing villages report being overrun with mounds of drying seawood up to 10 feet high on beaches, with tons more clogging the harbor and preventing them from moving fishing vessels out to sea.

Hopefully, the sargassum bloom may be an economic boon for others. On several islands, research is underway to develop tools to convert it into fertilizer. In the most popular beach resorts, hundreds have found work shoveling the seaweed away from gold sand beaches so that brides can have barefoot weddings and other resort guests can swim and sunbathe.

What is Sargassum and why is it bad?

Sargassum is not new, but for centuries it was primarily in the 2,000,000-square-mile region of the North Atlantic known as the Sargasso Sea. Clumps of the rich and nourishing brown seawood would break off and drift across other areas of the ocean, but rarely in such volume.

Left to dry on coastlines, in the hot sun, it becomes a tourism nightmare. Despite the eyesore and odor given off by the thousands of tiny plants and marinelife that travel with sargassum, it is not harmful in any way.

Instead, scientists stress this eco-system’s importance to healthy oceans. Some speculate that climate change causing shifting water currents, warmer seas and more carbon dioxide is to be blamed for the abundance of sargassum, which otherwise occurs naturally.

A quick video visit with sargassum

Here’s a look at what I experienced in Riviera Maya in 2015, and what is recurring now as it moves around the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf Coasts through at least September, and probably through the end of the year.

Note that manual labor is used to remove the seaweed from beach areas where sea turtles may have made their nests, making cleanup efforts very costly. In parts of Boca Raton, for example, instead of cleanup, beaches have been closed since late May so that turtles can nest peacefully.

Conservationists say that large scale efforts to bury the seaweed in trenches dug into the sand will pay off in the future, when the sargassum attracts more sand to replenish and widen the beachfront along the most heavily developed coastlines.

A Family Resource to make your own lemonade from holiday lemons!

If your resort is suddenly awash in sargassum, use the inconvenience as a learning opportunity for the whole family to understand firsthand why we must live in harmony with nature. The Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism’s handbook “Sargassum, A Resource Guide for the Caribbean” will fascinate school-age kids and is good resource for crafts projects incorporating the dried seaweed.

All we know for sure is that trying it fight it on such a large scale is a losing proposition.

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