Written By: Rebecca Coutant
I first visited Belize in August of 2006; a one-week get away from my stressful life in New York City. And just a few days into the trip I was IN LOVE. Not your average “I’m SO glad just to be away from my job” kind of vacation-love. I NEVER WANTED TO LEAVE. It was very clear that Ambergris Caye was the place I was always meant to be.
Fifteen years later (just over 14 years of full-time life on Ambergris Caye), that feeling hasn’t changed.
Way back on that first trip, I wasn’t able to put my feelings into words…but this much I knew: the Caribbean Sea, our Barrier Reef, the infinite shades of blue were a huge part of that feeling.
The waters of Belize are not just pretty to look at; they are the center of our universe. The sea is the backbone of our economy on Ambergris Caye and for the coast of our small country. San Pedro, just a tiny fishing village about 40 years ago, has become a mecca for SCUBA divers, snorkelers and people who come to fly fish for tarpon, bonefish and permit – all three catch-and-release only by the law of Belize. Directly or indirectly, everyone’s livelihood on Ambergris Caye depends on our ocean.
One of my favorite things to do is to walk along the beach…searching for sea-beans…seeds fall in jungles around the world, float down rivers and into the ocean. My collection fills coffee cans, jelly jars and buckets all over our house. Walking and collecting brought me some much needed serenity during the turmoil of 2020.
But in the last few years, at certain times of the year, huge amounts of algae are washing up on our shores…and clogging the shoreline. Even the word sounds gross. Sargassum. What is this stuff? Where does it come from? And what can we do about it. Let’s start with each question.
What exactly IS Sargassum
Sargassum is a free floating seaweed-like algae. Unlike other seaweeds which grow on the ocean floor, sargassum grows and propagates on top of the water using little air-filled “berries” so that it floats.
There are huge mats of Sargassum all throughout what is called the “Sargasso Sea,” an area that is one thousand miles wide and three thousand miles long accounting for almost two thirds of the North Atlantic Ocean.. This is not a new thing – even Christopher Columbus wrote about “the weed” in one of his journals.
Bound by the Gulf Stream and the major Atlantic currents, the Sargasso Sea is a critical habitat and feeding ground for sea life of all sizes. A nursery for juvenile sea turtles, eels and fish…a feeding area for migrating tuna and humpback whales, it’s quite miraculous. It’s been called “the golden floating rainforest” of the Atlantic Ocean. And in small clumps, the plant breaks off naturally and floats to the shores of the Caribbean and Mexico and even Africa. Small bits can be quite pretty. A sort of golden “sea holly” – I remember popping the little bubbles as a kid.
As awful as 2020 was the island and the world, it was a very light year for sargassum on the beaches of Belize. Our shorelines looked gorgeous!
In small amounts, it washes onto the beach, the sun dries it out and it blows away. It becomes part of the soil that makes our island. So far, this stuff sounds great! Protecting baby loggerhead and green turtles? Feeding sperm whales? A golden rain forest? Well…yes…but…
Things change drastically if there is too much – the lifegiving plants turns into a mess.
What is NOT A Normal Amount of Sargassum
Back in about 2015, I first noticed that what was once a smattering of seaweed on our shores turned into an onslaught. And it’s become a phenomena that has government officials, residents and business owners scrambling for solutions around Belize and around the world.
Caribbean islands, the Mexican Caribbean (Cancun, Tulum and all huge tourist spots in between), Florida and the Gulf Coast and even the west side of Africa have reported major problems over the last 5 or 6 years. Coast lines can go for months with barely a sprig of sargassum and then be inundated. What was once a Sargasso Sea has added a Sargasso Belt and various sargassum blobs stretching across the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean Sea and patches are blooming in other places. According to scientists at the University of South Florida , this massive swath – dubbed The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt – first appeared in 2011.
Just recently a huge bloom has been found, by satellite, in and around the Amazon River basin. 2015 was a tough year for it on Ambergris Caye, as were 2018 and 2019. And now it’s back.
But Why Is This Happening Now?
Many of the scientific studies are pointing to…you guessed it…changes to the environment made by humans. Cited are: changes in currents and water temperatures due to global warming and the clearing of more forested land areas being replaced by heavily fertilized farm lands. The excess nutrients make their way down the major rivers and into the Atlantic Ocean. Warmer water temperatures and more fertilizer in the water both lead to overgrowth of sargassum.
What is Being Done About it
It’s first important to note again that this is NOT just Belize’s issue, it is a problem across the Caribbean, in South America, on US shorelines and even seen on the West Coast of Africa. All in areas that are trying to rebuild an industry that was one of the very hardest hit during the last year and a half – tourism.
The problem arises when so much sargassum comes in that it builds up along the shoreline and starts to rot. It breaks down and smells, it attracts bugs, it colors and clogs the water and can kill the local fish along the shore. The TOP priority is to get it out of the water.
Here in San Pedro, it is done with manpower. Dozens of workers with rakes and pitchforks, wheelbarrows and ATVs, standing ankle deep in wet sargasso and getting it out of the water. Piles are then carted away or loaded by backhoe into dump trucks and brought to landfill areas. As you can imagine, in the Caribbean sun, this is hard, hard work. And the clean-up comes with its own problems. Constant raking, digging and bulldozing removes precious sand and leaves the beaches very vulnerable to erosion – especially during the storm season.
The new Alaia Resort employs up to 30 men per day to get proactive about the sargassum. Ambergris Caye as a whole is also working on the problem on a broader scale. I spoke with San Pedro Mayor Wally Nunez about the situation. His team is actively working to find a more permanent solution – that could include barriers to protect our shoreline AND our tourism industry. Mexico has mobilized their Navy – fashioning ships to try to collect the algae before it hits the shore to varying degrees of success.
Other places and businesses are looking at turning sargassum into animal feed, bioplastics, lotions, building materials. All of these solutions take time and money. Both are in short supply – resources especially so in countries hit so hard by the pandemic.
I wish I told you that I knew the solution to our sargassum problem. That it is easy and we can all come together to fix this. I can’t.
But for now, know that the community and the beach crews are working hard to clean up our beaches and to welcome visitors back to our beautiful island. We ALL look forward to bigger solutions in the coming years.
Read more from Rebecca Coutant here.