Beaches on islands in Belize, from the reef to near the mainland, are literally covered with unsightly, smelly muddy-brown seaweed.
It’s a seasonal phenomenon where Sargassum seaweed, originating from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, makes its way into the warmer waters of the region.
But while in the past this unwanted visitor has stayed for a month or so, fishermen and island residents say the stuff has been here since late last year.
Regionally, the problem has become serious enough to require an official release from the Caribbean Tourism Association, which states that the seasonal influx has “got the attention of the CTO and tourism policymakers and practitioners across the region.”
Apart from attention, there’s not much in the way of answers in the release, which acknowledges that the Sargassum seaweed can be uncomfortable and it takes away from the beach experience of tourist.
Announcing that it is treating the matter seriously and with urgency, the release goes on to state that “we have engaged a number of regional and international institution in our attempts to find solutions.”
Closer to home, in San Pedro, the Sargassum seaweed has been taken in stride, even as islanders and resort-owners wish it would just go away. The San Pedro Town Council has taken the necessary step to employ new staff to deal with the massive cleanup of public beaches on the island.
Those workers rake up the thickly packed seaweed, which is then made accessible to residents in low-lying, swampy areas as landfill.
Business-minded San Pedranos have even figured out how to make some money from the bothersome seaweed, which they pile up in their private vehicles and sell for up to $35 a load.
There is a downside to this, however, because it poses a threat to the beaches. When the Sargassum is raked up, sand is removed from the beaches also, and when the seaweed is carted away to be used as landfill, the sand goes along with it.
Island residents report that the Council tries to supervise the raking and cleaning to ensure that as little sand as possible is removed from beaches, which already face the very real threat of erosion.
For resort owners, the seaweed is a problem, since there are reports that some tourists have packed up because of the incessant seaweed. San Pedro Deputy Mayor Gary Greif acknowledges that, but says it is a very small percentage of tourists, and since there’s nothing they can do about the influx, it’s something they’ll just have to deal with.
Still, some resort owners claim that some guests have good-naturedly joined in the efforts to clean up the beaches.
The seaweed is more prolific further north of Ambergris Caye because of the currents. In that area, a group of volunteers is working to use the Sargassum seaweed to build up the beach.
Aptly named Build a Beach, this initiative, started by resident Dimas Guerrero, is exploring digging trenches and burying the seaweed under a layer of sand, eventually extending the footage of the beach when the seaweed breaks down and settles. Volunteers have had some success using this process on a stretch of eroded beach near Journey’s End.
At this point, all islanders and tourism stakeholders in Belize and the region can do is pray that the Sargassum goes away, since nobody really knows what to do about this phenomenon. The University of the West Indies is hosting a symposium on August 17th to look at workable solutions.