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Aug 14, 2015

Sargassum in San Pedro: San Pedranos Respond

The Caribbean Tourism Organization has issued an official release on a seasonal visitor which has overstayed its welcome in the region. Sargassum seaweed originates in the Sargasso Sea and because of the warmer waters of this region in which it thrives, it visits periodically. But the brown clumps of seaweed have apparently decided to hang around, and by that we mean that they’ve practically blanketed beaches in the entire region. The release states that the CTO and the entire region are treating the matter with urgency, and offers the promise of an immediate search for a solution. In San Pedro, Belize’s premier tourism destination, Sargassum seaweed has claimed beaches there since late 2014, and today we found out that it’s a bother for some and a boon for others. Mike Rudon has the story.

 

Mike Rudon, Reporting

In Tobago, tourism officials are calling the influx of Sargassum seaweed a natural disaster, citing the worst year for tourism ever. In traditionally perfect beaches in places like Cancun and Puerto Morelos, Mexican officials say they will need to hire nearly five thousand additional workers to clean up the smelly mess, piled ten feet high in places. From the eastern coast of Mexico to Barbados, there is an urgent cry for an answer to this troubling phenomenon, a cry echoed in Belize.

 

These are the pristine beaches of La Isla Bonita, playground of the stars and many, many thousands of tourists. But they’re not looking quite so pristine in recent months, and it’s because of this seaweed which originates in the North Atlantic. It’s an eyesore, and the usually fresh breezes coming off the reef now carry the stench of rotting seaweed. The Town Council has done what it can immediately to deal with the aesthetics, by hiring extra staff to clean the beaches.

 

Gary Greif

Gary Greif, Deputy Mayor, San Pedro Town

“It affects the environment. If you were to go in the water you would find some small dead fish. You can’t see it right now, but when it was at its worst it would go a hundred feet out so those fish that would normally get to the edge and go back out get trapped. When it comes to tourism it is a problem because of the stench. The seaweed that gets on the beach is not an issue when it comes to stench. The one that stays on the water starts creating an unpleasant smell and that is not nice for anybody, either for the residents or the tourists that visit San Pedro.”

 

The effort by the Council is largely futile – not for a lack of effort, but because there is just too much seaweed. This stretch of beach will be clean this evening, and covered with seaweed by morning. For some enterprising residents, that’s not exactly a bad thing. They’ve started loading up the Sargassum seaweed and using it for landfill, either for their own properties or for sale to anybody who needs it. The load in this truck would go for forty dollars.

 

Glen Turner

Glen Turner, Sargasso Entrepreneur

“Whosoever wants a trip or two I would sell it to fill up their yard, you know. Because my truck is a truck that works for anybody and everybody, once they pay me I work. I do work around and I fill up my yard with it. I have a yard in San Mateo that I’ve filled up nicely.”

 

Gary Greif

“That is a very common practice actually. There are entrepreneurs all over San Pedro that they saw an opportunity, and they have their private trucks and what they do they come along and scoop up the Sargasso that some of the town Council employees have put in piles, and what they do they take it to places like San Mateo, DFC and use it for fill.”

 

According to Greif, the Town Council concentrates on the public areas, while resorts have used their own resources to keep their beaches, clean, or as clean as possible. Ramon’s Village Resort has had to hire additional staff to keep its beach clean. It’s a full time job, seven days a week. Today employees were doing one final beach cleanup before an event planned for later today, and they’re staying upbeat and making the best out of a potentially messy situation.

 

Einer Gomez

Einer Gomez, Manager, Ramon’s Village Resort

“I don’t think that anybody can be upset with nature. This is something that’s happening naturally. It’s really not our fault. It’s not the Town Council’s fault or anything. The fact that they see us battling the Sargasso every day on a daily basis with an increase in staff…they kind of accept it and embrace it and are happy to see that we are doing something about it.”

 

There’s another, very serious problem – much more serious than the stench or the aesthetics. The cleaning of the beaches is done with the best of intentions, but when the seaweed is picked up it takes a lot of the beach with it which leads, inevitably, to erosion.

 

Gary Greif

“The way we deal with it is that the same individuals that are selling the Sargasso, we’ve spoken to them and we’ve told them about the best practices, about how to get the Sargasso from the beach onto the truck with minimal erosion, and we tend to use our employees to supervise that loading and unloading of Sargasso.”

 

One group of volunteers called Building a Beach, the brainchild of San Pedro resident Dimas Guerrero, is doing much more than that, though. They’ve latched onto the idea of actually using the seaweed to build beaches. Volunteer Amber Edwards says the entire initiative is about bringing the community together to turn a months-long problem into a solution.

 

Amber Edwards, Volunteer, Build a Beach

“We dig trenches, the volunteers get in the water…they throw the Sargasso up on the beach to dry for the next week. We take the dried Sargasso from the week before, put it in the trenches and cover it with the white sand that was dug up. Basically what this does is it keeps the sand on the beach. When you clean the Sargasso and remove it from the beach, it’s great for landfill in other places, it’s great for fertilizer if you’re into compost or anything like that, but we want to keep some of it on the beach because there’s less erosion. If you remove the sand from the beach you’re going to lose your beach.”

 

And the innovative idea is actually working at this location near Journey’s End in Northern Ambergris Caye, where the group has been working. In fact, it’s been working so well that the Town Council has taken notice.

 

Gary Greif

“He and his group are working every Sunday on building a beach, because we understand that we can no longer be taking all the Sargasso out, so we have to be proactive and think outside the box. And actually we have borrowed from their practices. We have two beach reclamation projects going on. It’s basically finding an area that has extensive erosion, packing it with Sargasso, putting a layer of sand and as it settles putting more Sargasso and just repeating the process on and on.”

 

Amber Edwards

Amber Edwards

“You don’t have to do it here. You can do it on your own beach. Come out one weekend and see what it’s about and then do it on your own beach or you know, help us as we move along. We intend to get as many volunteers out in the next couple of weeks because once we expand this beach we want to move to another area.”

 

In other tourism areas like Cancun and Puerto Rico, the sheer accumulation of seaweed which decomposed at the water’s edge has caused real environmental concerns like significant fish-kills. That hasn’t become a concern in Belize just yet, and it is hoped that the Sargassum will disappear before it does. Mike Rudon for News Five.

 

The release from the Caribbean Tourism Organization states that it has engaged regional and international institutions to find a solution to the Sargassum seaweed. But at least in San Pedro, the residents and tourism stakeholders aren’t waiting around and are doing the best they can with a messy situation.

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2 Responses for “Sargassum in San Pedro: San Pedranos Respond”

  1. Belizesoul says:

    OMG- just go and arrest Mother Nature. Wait a minute. Isn’t Mother Nature one of the biggest draws for tourists that come to Belize? It is natural- get over it!!

  2. Karen says:

    Belize is not the only country experiencing this problem. It is not as easy to “get over it” as stated in the comment from Belizesoul. One of the main reasons that tourist visit a location is because of the beautiful water. When one tourist goes back home and tells others about the seaweed that prevented them from enjoying the water, we loose referrals. Word of mouth is still one of the biggest tourism marketing plans. If someone tells me that they had a wonderful time in a location, I research that location to see if I would like to visit. I don’t have a solution for the seaweed problem but I am glad that it is being discussed and hopefully a solution can be found.

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