Sargassum, a scourge of tourism and health in Mexico

Removing the sargassum that accumulates on some Riviera Maya beaches is a nightmare not only because of the foul smell, but also because it poses a health hazard to workers handling mountains of seaweed.

As it decomposes, sargassum emits hydrogen sulphide. In small amounts, this gas is only a minor nuisance due to its sulfuric smell, like a rotten egg.

But the quantities that accumulate on the paradisiacal beaches of Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Xcalak are dangerous for workers suffering from respiratory problems, who remove the Sargassum with rakes, under strong heat and without masks, according to the scientists. This promises to be the year when the most sargassum will have accumulated on the beaches, surpassing the 2018 record.

Ezequiel Martínez Lara is one of thousands of day laborers who work six to eight hours a day to load Sargassum into wheelbarrows and pile it up in nearby streets.

Martínez Lara used to earn up to $50 a day as a guide for sport fishing enthusiasts, but now he earns less than half that by harvesting around 40 wheelbarrows of Sargassum a day.

It’s a never-ending task on a beach north of Tulum, where huge amounts of sargassum are floating off the coast.

We can take out all the sargassum today, but tomorrow it will be full again, said another worker, Austin Valle.

Workers like Martínez and Valle are exposed to more than just the scorching sun, according to Rosa Rodríguez Martínez, a biologist from nearby Puerto Morelos who studies reefs and coastal ecosystems for the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

In the university we started measuring and digging the sargassum, the amount of gases that are released, said Rodríguez Martínez. On one occasion it went as high as 56 per million. It is very high above two and is dangerous for people with respiratory problems.

I threw myself, I fled.

Martínez Lara cannot afford to escape hydrogen sulphide. Like nearly all workers who remove sargassum, he doesn’t wear a mask, gas sensors or medical services. Get paid per day worked.

When sargassum decomposes, it gives off a very strong smell, like acid. It bothers a lot when you breathe it, said Martínez Lara. He added that he takes some simple precautions.

We’re trying to get it out (from the beach) as quickly as possible, while it’s still fresh, he said.

A 2019 article from the Journal of Travel Medicine contains an ominous warning: chronic exposure to these gases can cause conjunctival and neurocognitive symptoms, such as memory loss and balance problems, in addition to nonspecific symptoms such as headaches, nausea and fatigue.

The Florida Department of Health, for its part, says hydrogen sulfide found in places like beaches, where large amounts of air can dilute it, should not affect health.

The issue of sargassum, in any case, does not affect tourists so much as the workers who remove it. But neither of them is having a good time.

Ligia Collado-Vides, a marine botanist at Florida International University who specializes in macroalgae such as sargassum, said if you’re swimming a bit, it should pose no risk. But in Sargassum there are often hydrozoans, a relative of jellyfish.

If you’re going to spend a lot of time in contact with Sargassum, you can get lots and lots of hydrozoan bites, which are poisonous, he said, noting that long sleeves – something no one wears on the beach – might help.

Sarah Callaway, a tourist from Denver, had to settle for playing with her children in the swimming pool of the house she rented on the beach.

The house is beautiful, but the smell is unbearable, Callaway said. It’s really strong. And, yes, we were disappointed with the amount of Sargassum in there.

The boys tried to get into the water, and they didn’t feel comfortable, he added. We barely used the beach which is why we came.

The amount of Sargassum will affect people who live from tourism. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the coast in recent years, seeking better jobs, but some are considering leaving.

Valle said a friend who sells snacks in Tulum is considering selling her stand because sales have dropped so badly.

It is difficult to measure the impact of Sargassum on tourism. The coast has suffered a drop in tourist numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic, but tourist activity has not stopped as Mexico has never imposed restrictions and Americans have continued to arrive.

In the first half of 2022, international tourism exceeded pre-pandemic levels, with 10.26 million visitors between January and June, 1.5% more than in the first half of 2019.

Tourists come mainly from the United States. In the first half of 2022, 6.66 million Americans came, 19.1% more than the same period in 2019.

However, this flow could slow down. The Base Financial Group said in a report that the level of tourists in June this year fell by 13.8% compared to the same month in 2019. It is not clear if this was due to sargassum, the inflation or war in Ukraine.

Tourists, on the other hand, are spending less than before the pandemic.

The outlook is complex because some of the larger resorts, such as Cancun, have not received as much sargassum as resorts further south, including Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Ocean currents and islands like Isla Mujeres function as a barrier that prevents the advance of Sargassum. In Cancun, on the other hand, there are many large hotels, with many employees, which clean up the sargassum in a short time when it reaches their beaches.

It remains to be seen how well the floating barriers work, which should capture the sargassum in the sea, before it reaches the beach.

When the sea is calm, the barriers work, Rodríguez Martínez said. When chopped, neither works.

Some tourists love these beaches so much that they keep coming back.

I will definitely come back. We love it, said Jeff Chambers of Palm Desert, Calif., as he walked down a street in Tulum.

Some locals, like Víctor Reyes, an estate agent in Tulum, have a more positive attitude towards Sargassum and say there aren’t as many in the winter.

Winter is better. In November, when tourists start arriving, the Sargassum leaves, Reyes said.

As bad as it is for humans, Sargassum is far worse for grasses, fish and other sea life which are smothered by algae which sinks to the bottom, decomposes and creates anoxic or oxygen starved layers. , as in dead zones.

The sargassum stays there and sinks. No one sees it, but basically it creates anoxic conditions, Reyes said.

Collado-Vides said what he saw on a recent exploration trip was terrible because of the number of dead vertebrates, crabs and fish in one square meter.

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