Something’s invading the Southeastern shores of the Dominican Republic and I’m not talking about beach-combing tourists. I’m talking about sargassum, a type of green/brown seaweed from the Sargasso Sea that has been making its way to Caribbean shores for years. In 2011, it began showing up in unprecedented amounts, sometimes in places that hadn’t seen it before. According to a recent article in Newsweek, more than 8,400 tons of the algae buried a three-mile stretch of beach on Galveston Island, Texas in May 2014 —the most ever recorded in a 24-hour period. 2015 seems to be particularly bad with some calling it an inundation and others, an epidemic.
Sargassum originates in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean around Bermuda. The Atlantic is home to two species that travel on the ocean’s surface. These two species are also found throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, transported by the Gulf Stream. Sargassum is also called “gulfweed”. It has numerous ecological benefits – it provides habitat and food for a variety of marine species including sea turtles, fish, marine mammals and birds. It benefits beaches as well by adding nutrients to the ecosystem and protecting it from erosion. However, in large quantities, it creates a number of problems. It drives away tourists who come to the shore for sand and sun, not seaweed. It places hardship on affected communities throughout the Caribbean that do not have the resources to remove it and those that do, have to work tirelessly to keep up with it and then there is the challenge of what to do with it and where to put it. It financially strains (or as one beach restaurant manager said strangles) businesses that depend on tourism.
I may be new to the Dominican, but it’s clearly evident sargassum is taking over right now and no one seems to be able to keep up with it not even the fanciest and wealthiest of resorts. It’s quite unfortunate because 95% of the beaches in the Punta Cana/Bávaro area are covered with sargassum making it virtually impossible to capture the beauty of the area at this time. At its worst, I’ve seen it washed ashore in piles that are 3 feet in height and 5 feet in width. The shoreline here is literally blanketed with the stuff. Despite its ecological benefits, it’s a real nuisance for beach-goers. It’s ugly. It stinks. It puts a major hindrance on those who want to walk/run the shores and swim and splash in the idyllic, crystal clear, Caribbean waters.
In talking with numerous locals, I’ve been told varying things. Some say the sargassum epidemic has never happened before now, which is untrue. There are plenty of articles about the inundation of sargassum that is ruining beaches from Texas to Tobago. Others say it’s been here for months now and is suffocating their livelihoods as they spend all day removing the sargassum only to return the next morning to find their beaches awash again. Others say it happens annually in some capacity for a few months, but that it is particularly bad in 2015. Of course no one forewarned me about the Sargassum Invasion when I was making arrangements for a VRBO and in-country travel. 60% of the flights coming into the Dominican Republic land in Punta Cana. This is the epicenter of tourism, mega resorts, and prime Dominican shoreline. I think if the majority of people were aware of this epidemic, they would cancel their travel plans effective immediately. If I was a newlywed on my honeymoon and had dropped a small fortune on a five-star all-inclusive, I’d be pretty pissed off right about now. But mum is the word to keep those tourist dollars flowing in.
So what’s causing the gulfweed invasion? Most say its due to climate change which is causing a rise in ocean temperatures; others say it’s caused by the BP Gulf oil spill; others say it’s due to a change in ocean currents. Whatever the case may be, marine environmentalist have urged governments throughout the Caribbean to develop comprehensive plans to deal with the problem. Some suggest using it as fertilizer. A Cuban restaurateur I spoke with joked that it should be shipped to Japan. Whatever the cause and the remedy, I will continue to search for shorelines unaffected. I did, in fact, come all this way.