Caribbean sargassum invasion garners regional response

Workers remove sargassum from a beach in Tulum, Mexico. The seaweed continues to plague certain coastal regions of the Gulf and Caribbean. - Photo: Shutterstock

Thirteen Caribbean and Latin American nations agreed to concerted control efforts last week to address the influx of sargassum seaweed that has impacted coastlines and economies across the region.

A gathering in Cancun, Mexico, on 27 June resulted in a 26-point agreement, with the goal of establishing an action plan before the next regional sargassum forum this October in the French-controlled island of Guadeloupe.

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Signatories to the agreement include Belize, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The agreement, established Thursday at Cancun’s Moon Palace resort, outlines the need for cross-border information sharing on sargassum monitoring, science, education and entrepreneurship, among other topics. One mechanism to facilitate such sharing will be the website, www.internationalsargassumnetwork.com, a web portal intended to offer centralised information for researchers, government and the general public.

The agreement also calls on participants to begin identifying financial mechanisms to mobilise resources, to map out control efforts to identify sargassum-related initiatives, and to involve cruise lines in the issue.

The Association of Caribbean States, of which the Cayman Islands is not a member, will offer a formal structure to facilitate these efforts.

ACS Secretary General June Soomer explained that the realisation that sargassum would require regional collaboration came out of a 2015 symposium on invasive species. Since then, she said, members have been working to address the masses of sargassum that began invading Caribbean beaches in 2011. Reports of sargassum influxes reach across the Americas, from the United States to Brazil.

“We realise that disasters, invasive species like sargassum, know no boundaries,” she said. “It does not matter which country you are from. … Sargassum doesn’t care whether it is in St. Kitts and Nevis or in Mexico. The sea has no boundaries. And because the sea has no boundaries, we are seeing a major impact on our countries economically, socially, culturally, etc.

“But we have not sat down and allowed it to happen to us. We have been speaking about it. We have been putting policies in our countries. We have been engaging with innovators, with scientists, with anybody who could help us to solve this problem.”

Soomer called on attendees to revisit the Cartagena Convention, the 1983 treaty that establishes environmental protections in the Caribbean region. Any of the convention’s signatories, Soomer explained, can call for an amendment to the treaty.

“We need to revisit the Cartagena Convention to make sure we put in a protocol on invasive species, whether it be sargassum or lionfish or anything that is affecting our very important biodiversity in the region,” she said.

Sargassum lines a beach in Cancun, Mexico, last month. – Photo: Kayla Young

“That is the way we will be able to attract financing. … We can also do it in collaboration. We have many mega hotel chains in the region. We need to bring everybody together to speak to the issue of sargassum and how we can rid ourselves of this scourge.”

She called for a community-centric response that keeps in mind not only the impact on tourism but also on Caribbean people who depend on the sea for their livelihood.

“[Natural disasters] touch our people, not just our ministers of tourism or our owners of properties, but the people who make their livelihood from the sea: the fishermen,” she said.

Benito Juarez municipal president Mara Lezama pointed out that, with the right response, sargassum can present an economic opportunity.

“The potential is enormous,” she said. “We’ve heard that you can take advantage of it as a biofuel, a fertiliser, for the pharmaceutical industry, as a thickening agent, for fibre development, for disposable cups that are environmentally friendly. There are options,” Lezama said.

She and other elected officials from Mexico called on a collective response to improve strategic cooperation.

Mexico’s Quintana Roo state, home to major beach destinations such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, has seen itself greatly impacted by sargassum arrivals in recent months. Mounds of the invasive seaweed have required daily clean-up and control efforts, as the area works to protect its tourism product.

In mid-June, the Quintana Roo government declared a state of emergency, in an effort to access funds for greater sargassum control. The declaration sparked controversy in Mexico, with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador describing the move as irresponsible.

“It’s not a delicate issue, and much less a serious issue,” Lopez Obrador said during a press conference in late June. “It has a solution, and we’re working on it.”

The Mexican navy has been deployed as part of US$2.7 million anti-sargassum plan that will include the installation of barriers and the use of ships to collect the plant at sea and prevent arrivals on the beach. Quintana Roo Governor Carlos Joaquín González had hoped the emergency declaration would result in much greater funding, saying in mid-June that the state sought to raise around US$31 million from local, state and federal entities.

During Thursday’s gathering, González said, “The challenge is how we will continue forward with this problem so that it isn’t a detriment to the environment. We are open to projects that take advantage of sargassum and others that are in the research stage. Another challenge is for entrepreneurship to tackle the costs that come with collection.”

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