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19/04/23: Destinations Brace for Incoming Seaweed Bloom

Resorts and organizations partner to solve an ecological disaster.

The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, otherwise known as the massive seaweed blob, is currently heading for the coastline of South Florida, and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and is guaranteed to be problematic every time it washes ashore. While the accumulation of seaweed in the open ocean is a common occurrence, the enormous biomass extending from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico began accumulating much earlier than usual, according to satellite imaging captured in February.

This year’s Sargassum belt—which scientists estimate at over 10 million metric tons and originates from the Sargasso Sea—lies some distance from the southeast U.S. with Bermuda being the closest land mass. Mexico bears the brunt of the Sargassum issue as 74% of it ends up on the country’s eastern coastline.

What makes the Sargasso Sea unique is that it’s the only sea without a coastline and is instead bordered by the surrounding currents of the Atlantic. Unlike other forms of seaweed, Sargassum grows what looks like berries that are filled with air and allow the plant to float on the surface where it reproduces. The growing seaweed provides the ocean with a natural breeding ground, food and refuge for aquatic wildlife, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Once the brown gelatinous algae reach coastlines, locals, tourists, hoteliers and meeting professionals will have to contend with the nuisance of it canvassing beaches and release a foul stench as it decays. In some cases, hotels and resorts launch clean-up operations that run 24/7 to clear the Sargassum that often entangles both humans and animals.

And now for the really bad news: once the Sargassum has been cleared from beaches and pulled from the waters, its exposure to sunlight and the open-air triggers a chemical reaction releasing methane and arsenic, leading to major health risks to anyone exposed to the leakage—especially for those staying at a nearby resort.

But there is good news. Hospitality leaders and innovative energy companies are taking proactive steps to turn the onslaught into a windfall. Resorts have started working closely with their respective communities to combine resources and efforts to clear beaches of the troublesome seaweed while other organizations are finding ways to put the biomaterial to use in ways that benefit both the consumer and the environment.

One organization taking a stand for communities put at risk by the incoming Sargassum mass is Maya Luxe-Riviera Maya Luxury Vacations, a luxury villa rental company located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean coastline. The resort has, since 2009, embraced a philosophy centered around not only providing an unforgettable guest experience but also embracing and supporting the surrounding community.

The Rise Relief Fund—launched in 2019—is a fundraising platform launched by Maya Luxe to help the local population and has helped the surrounding community with numerous challenges including the economic impact caused by the pandemic on the area’s tourism industry, to the challenges brought on by Hurricane Delta and the subsequent flooding and destruction to hit the area in 2020.

In a partnership with Cotelier Hotels, 5% of all proceeds go to Rise to prepare care packages, including food and other essential items.

Maya Luxe management is now on the front lines of the Sargassum problem because occupants of the rental villas are facing inconveniences. Maya Luxe founder and owner Steph Farr explains: “It’s a very fine line of advising our guests in advance of what the beaches look like, compared to what they’ve seen in photos.”

Farr went on to say that the region spans over 300 kilometers (186 miles) creating pockets of “destinations within destinations.” Cancun, for example, is home to an area known as Playa Mujeres which isn’t affected by the Sargassum because it’s shielded by the island of Isla Mujeres.

However, these pockets of sanctuary are few and far between with many of the more popular destinations in the region being “hit hard.” Farr notes that bays, which are very popular destinations for families have taken the brunt of the problem. Two bays in particular, Soliman and Tankah, are popular beach communities with very few private residences and located only a 15-minute drive from the bustling tourist destination of Tulum.

Sargassum is coming earlier and earlier every year, Farr says. During typical seasons, the Sargassum is expected to arrive around May or June, if not later in the summer. This year, the green muck began washing ashore toward the end of January.

And Sargassum is far more troublesome than simply washing ashore to create a tangled eyesore. “When the sun is burning on the seaweed, if you’re exposed to it for an hour, it’s equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes,” Farr says, adding that the toxicity of the heated Sargassum is severe enough that it prevents guests from enjoying any other exterior areas of the properties.

One of the latest moves to combat the problem was the purchase of a large tractor to clear the seaweed from the coastline. While the use of heavy machinery reduces costs by requiring less labor, it can be detrimental to the beach’s ecosystem. “We’re working with different organizations to process the seaweed,” Farr says, noting that the main hurdle is finding an answer of what to do with the Sargassum once it’s been collected. The process of transporting the Sargassum to be disposed of is an expensive endeavor, with an incurred cost of up to $30,000 monthly, which has become the alternative to dumping the seaweed in nearby mangroves.

To avoid the environmental impacts, Rise recently partnered with brick manufacturer Green Blue Organization to use Sargassum as a raw material for building materials that sell to local construction companies for 50% of the cost of standard bricks. “We’re trying to focus on the circular economy with the homeowner, the brick maker and the construction company,” she said.

Ultimately, the issues caused by Sargassum has caused Maya Luxe to become more proactive with clients and provide transparency with the situation as it stands in real-time, typically 10 days prior to a guest’s arrival due to the intermittent frequency of Sargassum inundating shorelines. Maya Luxe updates guests with images of the area to provide a true sense of the situation. Those wishing to postpone are given credit for a future trip with an expiration of 18 months.

“The most important thing is the level of meeting expectations,” Farr says. “The disappointment happens when guests arrive and they weren’t aware of what the situation was like. It’s one thing to read the disclaimers, but it’s another thing when they arrive and can’t sit outside or enjoy the property.” While rescheduling an event at a destination such as the Maya Luxe can be a serious problem for those hosting an event, planners can rest easy knowing the resort won’t force an unfavorable situation. In addition to credits for future stays in lieu of seaweed-induced cancellations, Maya Luxe also offers guests credits for various experiences when canceling becomes necessary.

Carbonwave, a startup building a sustainable and regenerative platform to address climate change, has developed a model for the biorefinery of Sargassum. The company has developed the Intellectual Property (IP) that enables them to embrace Sargassum as a renewable source of material from which they can make seaweed bio-fertilizer, emulsifiers and soon a bio-leather and bioplastics.

Currently, Carbonwave is one of the only companies able to utilize Sargassum as a raw material, as traditional methods for extracting high value materials from most seaweeds do not work on Sargassum. The seaweed mass has garnered little to no attention internationally in the past as the season for Sargassum blooms was much shorter and yielded less bulk in the past. However, this is steadily changing as the Sargassum season now extends to 10 months a year—ultimately having an impact on even more nations, according to Carbonwave co-founder Geoff Chapin.

In 2022, the annual Sargassum bloom allowed Carbonwave to collect a total of 20 seven-ton bins of biomatter in February, an early month for the bloom. This year’s Sargassum bloom already produced 240 bins in February. “It’s starting to get attention now as it spreads to Florida and our methods for making valuable products from the Sargassum could be helpful there as well,” he says.

“What the hotels like is that we’re not just putting all of it in a landfill, we’re processing it and turning it into these products. Our processing prevents the seaweed from rotting and producing methane and prevents arsenic from leaching into the sand and soil. We can separate the arsenic and treat it responsibly,” Chapin says.

The Smithsonian Institution attributes the increase in Sargassum growth to deforestation and water pollution resulting in nutrient runoff. This warms the oceans and creates the ideal conditions for algae proliferation. This algae is the ocean’s way of healing itself from over-acidification and nutrification, but when it collects in bays and rots, it produces methane, ecological, and economic harm to communities. Carbonwave is attempting to curb socio-economic and environmental harm by using Sargassum seaweed as an alternative source for fertilizer, cosmetics, clothing and packaging. Most of their products replace fossil fuel-based products.

Carbowave’s move to utilize Sargassum as a next-generation source of materials has the potential to make a global economic impact through what’s described as a circular economy. The “seaweed circular economy” starts with using the liquid fraction of Sargassum as a bio-fertilizer that reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizer and also increases crop yields. The remaining pulp from the Sargassum is put through Carbonwave’s proprietary process to extract ingredients that are used to produce natural cosmetic emulsifiers, and soon a bio-leather and bioplastics. Finally, by processing the sargassum instead of dumping it in landfills, this circular economy reduces methane and other greenhouse gases and helps address at least seven of the Sustainable Development Goals, all while helping nations deal with a harmful scourge with few prior solutions.

This is especially significant for the areas directly affected, from West Africa to the Caribbean, due to these regions’ vulnerability to climate change. According to Carbonwave, the supply to which they have access can treat millions of acres of crops at cost effective levels, replace part of the fossil fuel-based emulsifier and plastics market, and reduce greenhouse gases in multiple ways, thereby reducing virgin raw material usage and the effects of climate change.

Stem the Tide of Sargassum

The bloom of Sargassum choking the shoreline of pristine destinations isn’t likely to disappear overnight, so the hospitality industry is taking proactive steps. Maya Luxe is currently in the process of conducting its due diligence for various options to stifle the flow of Sargassum into the region, including installing barriers into the bay to keep it from washing up on beaches.

Recently, Carbonwave raised $5 million in initial Series A funding, allowing the developer of advanced plant-based materials to expand its operations, and open a larger scale emulsifier production site in Puerto Rico.

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