Initiatives to tackle the problem on Mexico’s beautiful Caribbean beaches polluted with the Sargassum blooms
Guest blog by: Champi Alvarez
Mexico’s beautiful Caribbean beaches with their turquoise waters and endless white sand have been experiencing a phenomenon that started last decade which pollutes many beaches around the Riviera: the sargassum blooms.
Sargassum is a brown marine macroalgae of the genus Sargassum and can be seen floating on the surface of the ocean. In marine areas, sargassum forms essential ecosystems for the health of the oceans and provides environmental goods and services for human activities. However, when these algae reach coastal areas they have negative effects on nature and the environment, communities and sectors such as fishing and tourism.
The warming of the oceans increases the presence of this algae on the beaches of the Riviera Maya, affecting many industries that depend on these destinations and ecosystems. When on the beach, sargassum forms brown spots up to 150 linear meters and gives off an unpleasant rotten smell, strong enough to keep tourists away.
There are records of the presence of sargassum in the Atlantic from the 15th century with the discovery of the Sargassum Sea, but since 2011 the presence and amount of this algae in the Caribbean Sea have been higher than normal. Since 2014 sargassum has become the uncomfortable guest on the beaches and coasts of Quintana Roo, in the South of Mexico, before then the quantities were not a big of a problem.
An immense and thick brown tide of algae that due to climate change and the acidification of the oceans, proliferates in the water and reaches the coasts of several Caribbean countries. Every year the problem of sargassum blurs the beauty of the sun and beaches offered by some of the most visited destinations in Mexico and affects not only tourism; scientific studies have shown that its decomposition impacts ecosystems, prevents light from filtering into the water and it contains a remarkable amount of heavy metals and dangerous bacteria.
By 2018, NASA observed 20 million tons on the Caribbean coast, which is equivalent to all the garbage that is generated in Mexico City in 4 years, an extremely high volume and sufficient to generate environmental, social and economic problems that must be addressed urgently. Several universities have studied this phenomenon, such as the University of South Florida and UNAM, and it was determined in May of 2021 that the algae would reach the ecosystems of Quintana Roo in greater quantities than in 2019, a record-breaking year, when only from May to July they were 38,892 tons of seaweed collected, according to the Secretary of the Navy.
“Sargassum is an example of what climate change can do to the planet by not taking care of wastewater treatment, injecting so many pollutants into the sea and emitting so many greenhouse gases,” says UNAM researcher Rosa Elisa Rodríguez, a coral specialist.
Sargassum season, when the majority of seaweed arrives in the Mexican Caribbean, runs from April to August, and during these time the current Mexican government entrusted the task of collecting sargassum to the Navy and the Monitoring System for Collected Sargassum (Simsar), an entity which was created in order to tackle the problem. Currently, the government strategy has 289 elements that are in charge of cleaning tasks, 12 sargassum boats and 4.2 kilometers of barriers to prevent sargassum from reaching some of the emblematic beaches, such as Tulum or Playa del Carmen. The measure seeks to systematize the information and improve the use of the algae once it is collected, but researchers are not so optimistic and they have been calling for increased resources not only to remove the algae, but to process it properly and prevent it from contaminating the soil when it is disposed of. Unfortunately, even though it has become a national problem, the government has only helped with very few resources.
Another problem is that in Mexico there are few or no regulations or permits to market sargassum. But even though there are a lot of limitations, many initiatives have been coming up throughout the years once this issue started.
People and groups near the affected area have come up with creative ideas on how to use this algae in order to have an impact on changing the landscape that is so dreaded during the summer months and coming up with products that not only are sustainable but that might help with the algae blooms.
One example is the Mexican company ‘Sargánico, which creates sustainable products with sargassum as their main ingredient. They create notebooks, folders, cup holders, menu holders and business cards among other products.
Victoria Morfín, its creator, following her creative and entrepreneurial instinct, had the idea of turning sargassum into raw material to process and transform it into practical, useful and aesthetic products. The purpose of making this type of materials is to offer products that help to have a lesser impact on the environment, giving its customers the confidence that their products are one of the best alternatives there are in order to have a sustainable life and tackle this issue that hits so close to home.
Sargánico combines sargassum with recycled materials to make its products and has become a great alternative for a more sustainable life around Quintana Roo.
Another initiative is a company with the name of C-Combinator, which with innovative bio-manufacturing they turn the Mexican Caribbean coast’ sargassum into solutions that not only help restore the planet but also look for solutions to a transition without oil in the near future.
Sargassum is a type of brown algae that is very hard to work with and it’s too often overlook, and that is exactly why C-Combinator have turned towards it to center their business strategy on. They have come up with a circular economy design to convert this sargassum that has affected many into a line of sustainable products.
By doing this they are addressing the environmental, social and economic impacts while generating jobs in an economy based in biofuels and bioproducts, by working with local people and undertaking a local problem.
C-Combinator creates an array of products derived from the local sargassum that arrives to the Caribbean waters every year. They create bio stimulants and bio fertilizers that increase the health and the performance of the soil for agriculture, replacing soil degradant fertilizers that only destroy the health of the soil. They are also centering their production towards making textiles and packaging, cosmetics, bio-medical, and tissue-engineering products derived from the seaweed that is collected.
Unsurprisingly it is human activity that is radically altering the sargassum blooms and algae blooms around the oceans and changes need to be made before the problem inevitably gets worse in the future. Seaweed is one of the most fastest growing plants in the world and they survive very harsh environments by being adaptable and regenerative while absorbing carbon dioxide around them. They have become key for the health of the ocean in many parts around the world with different initiatives and projects centered around the benefits of working with their different types. An example outside of Mexico of such initiatives are AlgiKnit, a biomaterials research group located in New York City, comprising a team of scientists and designers that have joined forces to launch a new class of sustainable materials for a cleaner fashion industry based on seaweed and Evoware, a social enterprise in Indonesia that promotes sustainability by providing plastic-free alternatives such as seaweed based packaging.
The demand for these products will only increase, and the cost of production will decrease, making it a real sustainable alternative to other products. Especially companies such as C-Combinator that are offering products that might even help break the process of sargassum blooms by decreasing them while using soil products that do not contribute to making conditions better for the algae blooms but on the contrary, healing the soil and not directing chemicals into the oceans that make sargassum grow more each year.
The process of turning the algae into products helps to restore soils and oceans, remove microplastic residues, and contribute to carbon neutrality. Our oceans are out of balance and this sort of algae pollution, even though it comes from natural sources is heating up our planet. This projects are making a stand and giving a voice to a much needed issue that we all need to be aware of.
Thanks to this first steps of people, communities and businesses, more will eventually follow. The Mexican Caribbean Coast has seen an influx on projects that wish to work with the sargassum blooms and help the community with it and it definitely has become a national environmental catastrophe and together we can help with innovative ways of transforming a hazard into an opportunity of restoring our precious ecosystems that need it so much.
Sargánico IG @sargánico
C-Combinator IG @c_combinator