Mexico City: A mass of stinking seaweed the size of Jamaica is heading toward Mexico's popular beaches, in time to ruin the usually pristine waters for tourists.
Sargassum seaweed covers the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico in May. Credit:AP
The floating mass of sargassum algae, more than 540 km long, could reach Mexico's shoreline this week, reaching the Yucatan peninsula's coast and spreading as far south as Belize.
Mexico's Caribbean beaches, in particular Cancun and Tulum, are popular with foreign tourists looking for a cheap break, warm weather and crystal clear waters. The sargassum has affected some Mexican beaches since 2011 but the seaweed island, dubbed the "Sargasso stain", is a worrying escalation.
The explosion of algae has been caused by deforestation in the Amazon and intensive use of fertilisers which have fed nitrogen into the oceans, boosting seaweed growth.
Environmentalists say the algae will bring disaster to the area's biodiversity. While it serves as a habitat for marine life, once it hits the shore it dies and produces toxic chemicals which leak into the sea, damaging coral reefs and marine ecosystems, emitting the smell of rotting eggs as the algae decays.
The shore where fishermen push their boat to sea in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Credit:AP
The floating island has been filmed by NASA satellite cameras and is about 1000km east off the coast of Mexico's Quintana Roo state.
Dr Chuanmin Hu, a marine scientist at the University of South Florida, warned the belt of algae "is very likely to be a new normal". Dr Woody Turner, manager of the Ecological Forecasting Program at NASA in Washington, said: "The scale is truly enormous."
Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has deployed the country's marine corps to tackle the algae but he enraged local businesses by downplaying the issue, saying that the seaweed's impact was "not very serious".
Some countries, such as Barbados, have previously declared national emergencies because of the threat to tourism.
According to industry data, hotel resorts on Mexico's Riviera Maya, which stretches 160 km from Puerto Morelos to Punta Allen, have lost an estimated £9.5 million ($17 million) this year from a sargasso-related downturn in visitors.
Hotels have placed nets in the sea to try to keep the sargassum away from the beaches while staff remove up to a ton day with shovels and wheelbarrows.
Obrador said he had put aside £2.1 million ($3.7 million) to tackle the threat, but Marisol Vanegas Pérez, his own tourism secretary, said this was insufficient.
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