The impetuous Caribbean beach, popular for its high waves, looked desolate on the morning of Sunday, April 16, in the middle of spring. From the beginning of the highway in the eastern Dominican Republic, stripes of brown macroalgae could be seen floating in the glistening waters.
The Caribbean nation enjoys fertile soil, a diverse climate, hospitable people and places where unique experiences are enjoyed. It is also famous for its enchanting beaches and its dynamic tourism, one of the strongest pillars of the Dominican economy. However, the excessive eruption of sargassum into the sea has caused a serious environmental and economic problem that, by affecting communities in more vulnerable regions, such as the Caribbean, has become a matter of climate justice.
“The economic impact has been very hard, 60 percent of visitors are lost,” says fisherman Raimundo Méndez, who has been working on this beach for 22 years. He assures that the sargassum was brought forward this season and adds that the main complaint from customers is the stench expelled by the macroalgae. “When the sargassum is three or four days old, a bad smell comes out due to the accumulation of all the species that it drags to the shore, and they die. This ferments, causing contaminants and contamination of the water”, he explains.
Mendez also caters to visitors and rents chairs, parking lots and tables with umbrellas. Like Méndez, Félix Carrión belongs to the Union of Beach, Hotel and Tourist Workers of Guayacanes and Surrounding Areas (SINPLAGHT). Carrión is older than Méndez in this business; he also rents chairs, tables and umbrellas. He has worked on this beach since he was a child with his mother, now deceased, who began selling fried food in 1968. Saving is Carrión’s strategy to compensate for the low season in sales, which according to him drops one hundred percent.
One problem, many factors
Dominican beaches are propitious for this algae to multiply rapidly, due to its temperature and availability of nutrients. Specifically, Pugibet points out that the arrival of sargassum on the coast is due to a natural phenomenon, but that it has been accelerated and magnified by climate change, a product of human activities on a global scale.
In fact, the outcrop of macroalgae comes from the “Sargasso Sea”, a portion of the North Atlantic that connects with the eastern United States and western Europe, as explained by the president of the Dominican Republic Academy of Sciences, Eleuterio Martínez. .
Beyond the bad smell
The irregular behavior of sargassum has a negative impact on economic, social, environmental and health aspects, says Pugibet Bobea. He also mentions the erosion of the beaches due to the accumulation of sargassum with sand; the loss of seagrass beds; the mortality of marine and reef fauna and flora; accelerated eutrophication of mangroves; the bad appearance and unpleasant smell generated by the putrefaction of the sargassum, among other disorders.
Consequently, the MMARN Vice Minister of Coastal and Marine Resources, José Ramón Reyes López, affirms that the massive arrivals of sargassum affect almost all the beaches, with the exception of the coast of the province of Montecristi.
Regarding health, sargassum, says Martínez, is an algae that when it comes into contact with the skin can cause itching and pain, among other discomforts.
In the financial aspect, although the Central Bank and the Ministry of Tourism (MITUR) report historical records in the tourist influx of January and February 2023, the ecologist from the Fundación Ecológica Tropical, Nelson Reyes Estrella, suggests investigating, doing a study of field on the beach, on the level of satisfaction of the tourists and make sure if they are the same visitors every year.
The president of the Academy of Sciences explains that progress is being made in some techniques, and that if sargassum is subjected to different treatment regimes, it could be used and processed to make biogas, fertilizer or any other fuel. “Through photosynthesis, they cool solar energy and that solar energy can be transformed into another type of energy, and therefore it can be transformed into biogas, into any type of energy or into fertilizer. It all depends on the procedure or the technique that is used, ”he argues.
For this reason, one of the projects that the Academy of Sciences has for the future is to install a sargassum processing plant to convert it into a source of gas and biogas, any type of energy or also use it as fertilizer, reveals Martínez.
In power generation, the president of ANAMAR agrees with the engineer Martínez. In an interview in the “Grano -A- Grano” space of the newspaper Hoy, he highlighted that “the best use that can be given to sargassum is the generation of electrical energy; an alternative to face the problems generated by this macroalgae and its economic impact”.
For this reason, several study centers have immersed themselves in the investigation of sargassum. On the one hand, a team of researchers from the Technological Institute of Santo Domingo (Intec) in teamwork with other institutions, presented the “preliminary results of a sargassum liquid biofertilizer for use in agriculture.” While the Federico Henríquez y Carvajal (UFHEC) and Calabria universities are investigating “how to extract components with pharmaceutical potential such as antioxidants”. Another innovation is that of a group of students from the Carol Morgan School (CMS), inventors of the hydropyrolysis reactor that incinerates sargassum to produce fuels such as kerosene, diesel or gas, and the rest of the material could be used as activated carbon.
In addition, its approach would be of interest in the workplace, since the collection of sargassum could generate a source of employment. “In Punta Cana it would generate more than 500 direct jobs if sanitation systems are developed and implemented by entities trained in the management of the technology or system,” reported the president of SOS Carbón, Andrés Bisonó León, in a media outlet.
In any case, joint work is required. In this line, Reyes Estrella proposes initiatives such as a conference on sargassum, with the authorities, NGOs and international experts, in Samaná, Puerto Plata, La Altagracia, El Seibo or Miches. The environmentalist suggests the establishment of a budget, prior to the creation of a law, as well as the elaboration and execution of a public policy, which obliges the central government through MITUR, MMARN and other institutions, to protect tourism, combat the sargassum and efficiently manage resources.
The enormous presence of sargassum has affected the operation of several thermoelectric plants and ports, for which the Head of State, Luis Abinader, reported that they will seek pragmatic solutions. “From the government we are going to initiate diplomatic actions so that through some of our multilateral organizations we can, jointly between the various affected countries, declare it an emergency,” he said when heading the seminar on “Sargassum Challenges and Opportunities.”
In the search for ecosystem conservation mechanisms and collaboration for the conservation of the Sargasso Sea – an important open sea ecosystem – the Hamilton Declaration was created in 2014, signed by Bermuda, Azores, Monaco, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland North and United States.
In this sense, since 2017, according to Diario Libre, the Dominican Republic “began the procedures to benefit from this declaration.” However, the Vice Minister of Coastal and Marine Resources of the MMARN says that “according to several experts, including the diplomatic mission that learned of this declaration, they considered that said text ignores some of the rights acquired by the Dominican Republic in terms of its oceanic jurisdiction, for which reason it is referred to additional studies and opinions”.
The MMARN, through the Vice Ministry of Coastal and Marine Resources, has measures to mitigate the sargassum problem. In this regard, Pugibet Bobea and Reyes López detail that these actions consist of the definition of protocols and guidelines for the management of macroalgae, and that it includes its removal by manual collection or with special equipment to avoid beach erosion.
In addition, Reyes López mentions the regional agreements that the Government has entered into together with other nations in the region, such as the guidelines of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the working group of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) on sargassum, of the Protocol Relative to Specially Protected Areas and Wild Fauna and Flora (SPAW) in the Caribbean Region. Additionally, he says that the postulates of the International Conference on Sargassum and the Declaration of Guadalupe of 2019 are taken into account.
However, the presence of sargassum on the Caribbean beach is still latent. There are about six POLITUR (Tourism Police), but they only collect solid waste such as plastics, reveal Méndez and Carrión. Both assure that the workers in the area are the ones who remove the macroalgae, to avoid the stench and the contempt of the visitors. To do this, says Carrión, they collect the sargassum from 7:30 to 11:00 in the morning.
Other ways to clean the beach, Méndez comments that they dig a hole to bury the sargassum, and that they have used this macroalgae as fertilizer for the palm trees in that place. He has resorted to offering other escapes, to retain his clients, in a beach area less affected by the sargassum. “I have always lived on the water,” exclaims the fisherman.