Sargassum and trash in Cuba

At Caleta del Chivo, where the waves fail to carry away the rotten seaweed, the sea has turned into a smelly sargassum swamp. - Photos: Jans Sosa Rojas

Julio Batista Rodríguez
Periodismo de Barrio

In Guanahacabibes, at the western end of Cuba, the garbage and sargassum carried by the sea’s currents have changed the topography of practically virgin beaches.

A thick blanket arrives, wave after wave, to the shore. It is a daily process that brings with it the most unexpected objects. The sea carries in what has been dumped in it.

The sargassum that accumulates on the coast, layer after layer, has created actual walls that, on occasion, rise more than 5 feet high. The current carries it in at will, where it reaches the shore and is left to decompose.

With a little luck, once it has rotted and dried under the sun, the sargassum will stink for a time and then the sea will come and clean it out with its waves.

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With a bit of misfortune, it will end up in places like Caleta del Chivo, a shallow, pocket-shaped cove where the waves are not strong enough to drag away the decomposed matter.

So it will stink for more than half a mile around and the dead islands of rotting sargassum will slowly float around the cove, only to mix with the cloudy liquid that the sea has become.

Although sargassum has always arrived on these beaches, in the past five years an increase has been measured due to nutrients introduced by human activity.

Some bird species also live among the sargassum and the trash, where they search for crustaceans and animal remains to feed on.

The avalanche of this macroalgae has raised alarms in the region and threatens to topple tourist economies in the greater Caribbean.

Further, it has had notable effects on coral and coastal ecosystems. In Guanahacabibes, for example, it isn’t difficult to find dead fish on the shore, tangled in the mass of algae brought in by the waves.

The trash is another story. It doesn’t stink but it arrives in places like La Barca beach, where there is only a rustic monitoring camp for sea turtles. The image seems unreal.

For more than 12 miles, the current brings in plastics that are not generated in Guanahacabibes. There are shoes of all sizes, plastic nets for trapping lobster, fishing line, plastic and glass bottles, toys, golf clubs, buckets.

The murkiness generated by decomposing sargassum affects coastal ecosystems and reefs by lowering oxygen levels in the water and interfering with photosynthesis.

It doesn’t matter how often it is cleaned up or how many volunteers are willing to clean the site. The trash keeps arriving without pause to Playa Antonio, stretching until Punta del Holandés, converting the coastline into a natural boobytrap of trash.

Sometimes members of the Cámara Chica project venture out to Cuba’s most western point. These young people get together to clean stretches of beach in the peninsula and try to manage the trash problem at this site.

Unfortunately, the impact of the work they do is symbolic and limited. The trash and sargassum in Guanahacabibes and its beaches are just the symptom. To solve the problem, the causes must be directly addressed.

Some of the plastic waste most common to Guanahacabibes are plastic nets, used for trapping lobster. – Photos: Jans Sosa Rojas

This zone is difficult to access by people and by the press. With few resources to systematically clean the coastline, it has turned into a sort of secret landfill. It is out of sight and out of mind.

This feature was submitted by the independent Cuban news organisation, Periodismo de Barrio.

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