Caribbean Clogged: Seaweed Invasion Takes Over Beaches

Laura Begley Bloom
·Editor-in-Chief

It smells, it’s ugly, and it’s killing wildlife.

From the Riviera Maya of Mexico to the shores of islands like St. Martin, St. Thomas, and Anguilla, once-pristine beaches are being inundated by massive amounts of thick, brown seaweed that refuse to go away and are wreaking havoc on the ecosystems.

At a news conference on Tuesday, the Tobago House of Assembly declared a natural disaster and announced a $3 million budget to tackle the influx of seaweed on the island’s Atlantic coast.

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A roped-off Riviera Maya beach, edged in seaweed. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)

On July 30, Mexico’s Environment Department announced that the country would hire 4,600 temporary workers and spend about $9.1 million on cleanup efforts along the Caribbean coast, also known as the Riviera Maya. Cancun reported that it had removed nearly 100 tons of seaweed to date.

“In living memory we’ve never seen it this bad,” David Freestone, executive director of the Sargasso Sea Commission, told Yahoo Travel. “The worry is that this will be the new normal.”

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Sargassum seaweed covers the bay and beach at Speyside in Tobago. (Photo: Farley Augustine)

On Antigua, seaweed piles have reached 4 feet tall in some areas. On Barbados, 42 turtles recently died after getting caught in the seaweed and suffocating. Shocking photos from the island of Tobago emerged this week, showing boats trapped in a bay blanketed in seaweed.

Making matters worse, the seaweed — which harbors sea creatures — emits a pungent scent when it begins to rot.

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A live sea turtle overlooking small mountains of seaweed in Barbados. (Photo: Barbados Sea Turtle Project/Facebook)

The seaweed, known as sargassum, is usually contained in the Sargasso Sea, a floating ecosystem in the North Atlantic that stretches nearly 2 million square miles. But the seaweed is no stranger to the Caribbean region. “Every year in April and Mayyah some of it spills out into the eastern Caribbean, and the fishermen love it because it brings wahoo, dorado, tuna,” said Freestone, whose Sargasso Sea Alliance works to conserve the Sargasso Sea.

According to reports, the current invasion of seaweed started at the end of 2014 and hasn’t let up. In some areas, it has gotten worse in recent weeks. Sargassum seaweed has also been spotted as far away as West African countries like Ghana, where piles reach up to 10 feet high, and along the shores of Florida, from Palm Beach to Jetty Park.

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The pyramids of Tulum, Mexico, usually overlook a white-sand beach. (Photo: Thinkstock)

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Tulum’s beach now. (Photo: Dirk Dallas/Flickr)

Experts blame the current seaweed explosion on climate change and shifting currents. “The world is changing and this is a perfect storm,” said Sue Springer, CEO of the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association, which is planning to host a sargassum symposium in September and bring in scientists and experts to have a dialogue about the situation.

The last time the Caribbean region witnessed an influx of sargassum seaweed like this was in 2011. It was so bad that a hotel on Antigua, St. James’s Club & Villas, closed for a month to remove 10,000 tons of seaweed. Experts believed that in 2011 — in addition to climate change — cleanup efforts for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might have contributed to the seaweed’s growth.

Related: 5 Places Where You Can Help Save the Oceans

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A seaweed-covered beach in the Bahamas. (Photo: Thinkstock)

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St. Martin, also under attack. (Photo: Mark Yokoyama/Flickr)

This time, satellites show the seaweed’s path coming from a different location, near the base of the Amazon River. According to the Sargasso Sea Commission, the current cause “may include nutrient availability from the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, warmer surface temperatures, and changes in circulation associated with climate change.”

James S. Franks, a senior research scientist with the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and part of the associate graduate faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi, is one of the leading researchers on the topic and has been tracking the seaweed’s path of destruction.

For many Caribbean communities, “this overwhelming influx is difficult to deal with,” Franks told Newsweek. “It radically impacted tourism on some islands, creating economic and environmental hardship.”

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A Barbados beach. (Photo: Gill Griffin/Flickr)

Another issue complicating the situation is that machinery used to remove the seaweed can have negative impact on beach habitats, causing erosion and injuring nesting sea turtles. However, some beaches in Galveston, Texas — where sargassum is also an issue — and Mexico have begun using an eco-sensitive rake from a U.S. company, H. Barber & Sons, that does minimal damage to the environment.

“We’re encouraging a manual take, to be sensitive to the sustainability of the beaches,” said Matt Cooper, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association. “It’s also a great way to build berms and sand dunes.”

Related: Caribbean Blues: Mosquito Virus Is Sickening More Travelers

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Heavy machinery is used on a Riviera Maya beach. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)

Some tourism boards and hotels have been trying to put a positive spin on the situation. On Barbados, crafty locals have been turning the seaweed into fertilizer, and island chefs competing in the Taste of the Caribbean competition have been using the seaweed to create dishes. “This kind of seaweed is used for cooking in China and Japan,” Springer pointed out.

Grenada has approached China — where sargassum has been used since the eighth century for its natural healing powers — to see if the country wants to buy the seaweed for fertilizer.

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Removing seaweed in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (Photo: Rawdon Wyatt/Alamy)

Another group that loves the seaweed: scuba divers. “Divers love seaweed because it give you a completely different type of marine life, so not everyone is upset,” pointed out Karolin Troubetzkoy, vice president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association and the executive director of marketing and operations for St. Lucia resorts Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain.

Troubetzkoy’s resorts have been spared any seaweed damage. “It’s different from island to island and beach to beach,” she explained. “It’s not hitting all the islands.” Most Caribbean islands are experiencing problems on their eastern and southern beaches.

On Barbados, the tony west coast — known as the Gold Coast and home to glamorous resorts like Sandy Lane — has also escaped the wrath of the seaweed. Hotels that have been impacted are forging reciprocal arrangements with other properties on the island to allow guests to use seaweed-free beaches. “The hotels have been trying to do whatever they can to create an alternative experience,” said Springer.

The Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism (CAST), an initiative of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, has issued a resource guide to educate everyone from hoteliers to tourists.

And NASA and scientists with Texas A&M University at Galveston have worked together to create a smartphone app called the Sargassum Early Advisory System, or SEAS, which predicts when problems might occur.

Related: Most Dangerous and Safest Countries When It Comes to Natural Disasters

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A St. Lucia beach. (Photo: iStock)

Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa, located on the south coast of St. Lucia, is in the process of creating a flier to share with guests, explaining what the seaweed is, the nature of it, where it comes from, and how they’re trying to control it. “Guests are curious, of course, but it has not deterred bookings — actually, the resort is pretty much sold out for the rest of this year,” said Roberta Garzaroli, a spokeswoman for the hotel.

Still, the region is concerned about the impact it will have on tourism. “Ecotourists and the Sargassum Sea people see the positive aspects,” said Troubetzkoy. “But at the same time, you can’t operate your hotel if you have a stinky mess there.”

And yet, Freestone advises not focusing too much on the negative. “Sargassum is an amazing thing. It’s important as an ecosystem. It’s the only place in the world where eels spawn. But usually it dies and drops to the bottom, where it feeds species,” he said. “It’s terrible that we’re getting such negative press.”

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