Algae plague in the Caribbean: “Nature is rearing up”


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Status: 04/16/2023 1:24 p.m

The Caribbean beach paradise cliché is over in the Cancún region. Instead, rotting algae pile up. A gigantic belt of algae stretches from Mexico to Africa.

By Anne Demmer, ARD Studio Mexico City

Gentle waves pound the shore, washing new algae onto the beach with every movement. The smell of a mixture of rotten eggs and spoiled fish fills the air. Mounds of brown seaweed hide the white Caribbean sand.

The blue and white striped loungers at a beach bar in the small Mexican resort town of Puerto Morelos, about an hour’s drive from Cancún, are mostly empty. An American couple from Detroit is not bothered by this. They still sip their sunset margaritas on the beach.

Helen Crimbring gazes into the distance, beyond the brown soup, to where the water still sparkles turquoise. It’s a sign that something is seriously wrong, says the American tourist. “Nature is rebelling. We like this small town very much and would find it very bad if the people here lost their livelihoods due to the algae plague.”

problem keeps getting worse

The brown alga, the so-called sargassum, is not a new problem for the region. But it’s getting worse and worse, explains the biologist from the research institute in Puerto Morelos of the Universidad Autónoma de México, Brigitta van Tussenbroek.

The plague appeared particularly early this year. Basically, the brown algae is an important part of the ecosystem and of great importance for many sea creatures. These algae offer a special shelter for crabs, fish and turtles. But, as so often, it depends on the crowd. If the growth gets out of hand and gets out of control, the algae become a danger, explains the biologist.

Deforestation, eutrophication, climate change

One reason for the overgrowth is that the rivers carried more nutrients than they used to. This has to do with intensive agriculture and the associated deforestation. Normally the trees held the soil and the nutrients. But when trees are cut down, some soil erosion ends up in the sea. The nutrients that got into the water then promoted the growth of the algae.

Van Tussenbroek also sees a connection to the intensive cultivation of soybeans, for example in the Amazon, the Congo or the Mississippi. Large amounts of the fertilizer, which would be spread on the deforested areas for newly planted soybean fields, get into the sea via the rivers.

Experts see another reason in climate change: the temperatures in the world’s oceans are rising, which is also promoting the spread of brown algae.

catastrophe for tourism

In Puerto Morelos the extent is particularly extreme. It’s a disaster for a region that depends almost entirely on tourism, says Mario Zuleiba, manager of a hotel in Puerto Morelos.

More and more tourists left early. The local economy is shrinking. The whole year used to be high season for the region, now it is very limited periods. Visitors are still coming, but they are mostly local tourists from the region.

The municipalities took action, according to the hotel manager. In the visible distance, blue plastic buoys with nets attached float. That helps to a certain extent to hold back the algae. Again and again, the local government uses large ships to collect the masses of algae.

Every morning excavators and people with pitchforks try to remove the algae from the beaches. The algae mountains grow again overnight.

Image: ARD Studio Mexico City

Sisyphus work with the excavator

In the morning, just before sunrise, excavators, men and women armed with pitchforks arrive to recreate a bit of a Caribbean postcard idyll for the tourists. But overnight the algae mountains grow again. It is a never-ending task of Sisyphus, which incurs high costs.

In the desperate situation, resourceful companies from the region around Cancún are trying to find ways of using the sargassum: they are looking for creative solutions: bricks, fertilizer, leather bags, flowerpots are to be made from it. But in view of the masses of algae, it seems like a drop in the ocean.

Rotted algae harmful to humans and nature

Anke Schneider, project manager at the German Society for International Cooperation GIZ, advises the local government on site. As before, there are no rules, especially when it comes to the disposal of algae, she says. That is currently being worked on.

After collecting the sargassum, it is important to transport it to an actual final destination, as it contains many toxic substances and should not simply be dumped in the nearest forest or piled high on mountains on the beach. The Sargassum Mountains are currently landing somewhere in the jungle, some illegally.

Algae actually bind large amounts of CO2 during growth and could do a great deal in the fight against climate change. But when the dead parts of the plant rot, they produce chemical compounds that are harmful to marine life and can also cause skin irritation and rashes in humans.

8000 kilometers of algae belts

The algae belt stretches over 8,000 kilometers from the coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s heading towards Florida, hitting Central American countries like Belize or Cuba, which have few resources to fight the algae plague.

There will be no quick solution to the problem, said van Tussenbroek: “Of course it’s a very complex problem, because there are no individuals who are responsible for triggering this phenomenon. We all did it together.” Accordingly, the biologist must also work together internationally to find a solution.

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