Seeking to secure funding for mass-scale efforts to address it sargassum situation — an overabundance of the marine algae, which continues to plague Mexican Caribbean beaches on an unprecedented scale — Quintana’s Roo’s government has now declared a state of emergency, describing the unwelcome phenomenon as an “imminent natural disaster”.
The declaration applies to the municipalities of Lázaro Cárdenas, Isla Mujeres, Benito Juárez, Puerto Morelos, Cozumel, Solidaridad, Tulum, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Bacalar and Othón P. Blanco.
The overwhelming volume of this species of seaweed that has been washing up on Mexican-Caribbean beaches over the past few months is not only damaging delicate coastal ecosystems by lowering marine oxygen levels and entangling native wildlife; but also causing huge losses for the area’s tourism industry, owing to the slimy mess and malignant odor it causes after washing up onshore.
Quintana Roo’s Environment Secretary, Alfredo Arellano Guillermo, alluded to this dual threat in his statement, saying that, “The arrival and decomposition of large quantities of sargassum should be addressed with a double perspective: of guaranteeing the protection and use of the natural environment, and consequently, guaranteeing the normal development of human health.”
Governor Carlos Joaquín González said the state hopes to receive 600 million pesos ($31 million U.S.) to fund the emergency actions. The funds could come from local, state, and federal governments; as well as the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank.
The state currently plans to use any revenue generated by the commercialization of the collected macroalgae to offset the cost of the clean-up. Ideas for reuse of sargassum include processing it into livestock feed, compost, or even as an ingredient in food for human consumption; although experts have recently alluded to the possibility that the seaweed itself may be too toxic for such purposes.
A study by National Autonomous University (UNAM) and the Ecology Research Center in Miami, Florida found that some sargassum washing up in Quintana Roo contains high levels of arsenic and heavy metals. UNAM scientist Rosa Elisa Rodríguez Martínez cautioned that arsenic levels tested as 60 percent higher than those permitted in human and animal food products, so any efforts to repurpose the algae will need to be conducted very responsibly.
However, Arellano Guillermo affirmed that there’s not enough evidence to conclude that all or most sargassum contains dangerous levels of contaminants. “From what I understand, in a preliminary analysis, some heavy metals were detected, but that’s not enough to say it’s a constant,” he told Milenio. “To make an affirmation about the presence of heavy metals, we would need many more samples, from different areas.”
Alternative options for reuse of the sargassum do exist, as entrepreneurs are increasingly using the seaweed in a range of commercial products including paper, cosmetics, shoes, and construction materials.
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