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Sep 12, 2018

Huge Amounts of Sargassum Invade San Pedro’s Beaches

For the past months, Caribbean and Latin America countries have been feeling the negative effects of massive amounts of Sargassum which have washed up along the coastlines. Tons of Sargassum have covered Belize’s beaches including those in San Pedro and in Placencia. The decaying Sargassum not only releases a foul odor, but also a hydrogen sulfide gas which is known to cause harm to humans and animals when inhaled in large amounts.  The Sargassum phenomenon is causing detrimental damage to the tourism industries in the region and threatens the economies. In Belize, the Sargassum Task Force, which was formed in 2015, has been reactivated to address the issue, but before they do so, they need to understand its impact.   News Five’s Hipolito Novelo takes a closer look at the impacts of the Sargassum invasion.

 

Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism

 “It is a great concern. I think it is an emergency at this point.”

 

Hipolito Novelo, Reporting

From a bird’s eye view, large mats of Sargassum can be seen being carried by the Caribbean Current en route to the coastlines of many Caribbean and Latin American Countries like Belize. The Sargassum phenomenon has been affecting the region since 2011 but recently these massive blooms of the brown microalgae have slowly crept up on pristine beaches. Tons of the seaweed have invaded the beaches of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. The unpleasant smell many describe as a ‘rotting egg smell’ and the sight of the decaying Sargassum have caused many businesses along the beach to lose customers. For Blue Marlin’s, the Sargassum is causing a detrimental economic effect on its ability to attract paying patrons.

 

Kevin Locario

Kevin Locario, Employee, Blue Marlin’s

“The tourist actually really complain about it because if you notice we have the verandah right there and what happens is that they sit there and they cannot enjoy the ambiance because it has a bad smell. They do not really enjoy being here and having a nice drink or having nice food or something. A lot of us have lost business because it is a small town and a lot of us are friends who own business and a lot of us have the same complaints.”

 

Blue Marlin’s employee Kevin Locario’s task to convince customers to stay becomes nearly impossible with the lingering stench of the dead Sargassum. English Tourist Donald Bishop says the incredible amounts of Sargassum have made his vacation experience different.

 

Donald Bishop, Tourist

 “It’s getting worse this time. It’s the worst I have known it.”

 

Donald Bishop

Hipolito Novelo

“What’s the situation in Caye Caulker?”

 

Donald Bishop

“The situation in Caye Caulker is exactly the same. There is probably more there. They are trying to clean it up but it is too much.”

 

Lindsey Hackston has been operating Belizean Art, a jewelry and gift shop situated on the beach, for thirty years. Since the beginning of the year, Hackston has been burning incense to fight off the stench of the sargassum.  It has not worked and recently, Hackston realized that the toxin released in the air by the decaying Sargassum is wreaking havoc on her pieces of jewelry.

 

Lindsey Hackston

Lindsey Hackston, Owner, Belizean Art

 “The gold plated and the silver plated it actually corrodes and some of the jewelry we had to throw out. So our jewelry display has been really badly affected and our sales. A lot of it we have just stuffed in draws. We don’t even want to bring it out. You can see over there-over cabinet turned black. Even the beadwork from the indigenous Maya, some of that has turned black as well. It is terrible. I don’t know what is going to happen.”

 

Tourism Minister Manuel Heredia Junior says Belize’s tourism industry accounts for thirty-eight point eight percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The Sargassum is causing significant losses to the tourism industries across the region. In some Caribbean countries, major hotels have had to close down due to the massive amounts of Sargassum that have washed up along the beaches, transforming crystal clear waters into an unattractive, smelly and brown shade.

In 2015, A Sargassum Task Force was created to address the problem. That task force is responsible for creating a national plan and looking at regional initiatives to adapt in order to successfully implement best practices as a way to lessen the negative effects. The task force recently met to address the Sargassum problem with regional assistance.

 

Manuel Heredia Jr.

Manuel Heredia Jr.

 “Twenty percent of that amount we got in Belize but eighty percent is in the Western Caribbean and Mexico also. That is the reason why we have to work together not only locally. I believe when we meet at the SICA level, ministers of tourism, we will have to try to see how to address this issue together with our neighbors. It is not a matter just locally but regionally to try to see what can be done. I can recall in my fishing days we did use to have the Sargassum but it was for a short time, probably three months and it was over. This year has been the worse of the worse in the history of my fishing days until now.”

 

As the amount of Sargassum keeps piling up on the beach, the negative effects it has on the tourism sector in San Pedro Town is mounting. In the meantime, the San Pedro Town Council has workers cleaning up the beach but this temporary and sluggish solution to the Sargassum invasion is not enough. Workers like Abdonazzer Habeb Hajjara spend about eight hours a day trying to clean up as much of the beach using pitchforks and wheelbarrows.

 

Abdonazzer Habeb Hajjara

Abdonazzer Habeb Hajjara, Worker, San Pedro Town Council

We take it out and put it in wheel borrow and we put it into piles then we have a tractor put it in a dump truck. They take it to fill lots, properties and thing.”

 

Hipolito Novelo

“Is it difficult?”

 

Abdonazzer Habeb Hajjara

“It is not difficult but it is heavy because of the water only that when it starts to spoil it starts to think.”

 

Hipolito Novelo

“It stinks really badly. How do you handle it?”

 

Abdonazzer Habeb Hajjara

“We are already used to it.” 

 

Besides being foul, decaying Sargassum is toxic to humans and animals. It releases hydrogen sulfide gas and depending on the quantity inhaled, the poisonous and colorless gas can cause nausea and respiratory difficulties especially in at-risk individuals such as those who suffer from asthma. Several factors are combining to create the perfect conditions for these massive Sargasssum blooms. Large mats of Sargassum for some marine life but for others, it’s fatal. Recent fish kills in San Pedro have been attributed to the Sargassum which is known to destroy habitats for fishes, sea turtles, and birds. The Sargassum also hampers the ability of fishermen to find food. It is capable of destroying boat propellers, engines, and fishing equipment. So where is it all coming from? And what is causing it?

 

Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator

It is a phenomenon that is occurring because of many factors; global warming, upwelling. It is actually coming all the way from the Brazilian shelf.”

 

Janelle Chanona

Janelle Chanona, Vice President, OCEANA Belize

You have scientist finding out that the types of dispersants specifically one called Corexit that was used in the BP oil spill to have helped create a very nutrient-rich environment. You have climate change, global warming, and higher sea temperatures globally causing the sea to be warmer and therefore more conducive to these massive blooms. It’s a natural ecosystem so it is floating in seas around this part of the world. What’s happening is that because the water, the temperature, everything else is making it bloom it’s kind of coming from everywhere at the same time which is why it is getting to crisis level in many countries.” 

 

Many countries are looking for alternative use of the dead Sargassum. San Pedro residents are using it for landfill.

 

Beverly Wade

Beverly Wade

One of the things that they are looking at directly right now is landfill, composting. Some people in the region are looking to see if there are other uses for it in terms of feeds, animal feeds and things like that. But one of the biggest things that people are doing right is just using it as landfill.

 

San Pedro is not the only part of the country that is being affected. In Placencia the villagers have come together to address the issue. The Sargassum is causing further beach erosion in Hopkins Village and Belize City is seeing its first wave of the Sargassum assault. Reporting for News Five, I am Hipolito Novelo. 

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