Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

Wildfires, Floods, Tornadoes and…Seaweed?

Natural disasters that can derail a meeting or incentive can come in a variety of forms. The latest on the horizon that could turn your sweet summer incentive into a stinky affair is sargassum — a form of seaweed that is going into overdrive this year.

Sargassum is nothing new — it’s long been a common sight on the beaches of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean in the summer months. But this year is already showing signs that Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, a 5,000-mile-long floating mat of the brown microalgae that is so big it can be seen from space, is going to be another record-breaker. This wouldn’t be a big deal, other than the fact that, once it washes ashore and starts to rot in the sun, it releases hydrogen sulfide gas. While not terribly harmful to humans — though in high enough concentrations, it can cause problems for those with respiratory problems — it does sink like rotten eggs, and it can irritate people’s eyes, nose and throats. It also can interfere with sea turtle hatcheries, and foul boat motors and fishing gear, causing headaches for locals who rely on fishing for a living and for the restaurants that rely on their catches.

And if it builds up too much, it can gum up essential public works, as it did last year when it began to clog intake pipes at a desalination plant in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It can get so bad that it can cause resorts to close altogether until it recedes, as happened in the past on Union Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Last year, it got so bad that the U.S. Virgin Islands had to call on FEMA for help after declaring a state of emergency due to the accumulation of “exceptionally high quantities” of sargassum.

So much for that team-building activity on the beach and the evening clambake you had been planning for your lucky incentive qualifiers, right?

This year’s bumper crop of sargassum was born from Saharan dust clouds over the Atlantic that contain sargassum-friendly nutrients like iron, nitrogen and phosphorus, along with nitrogen-rich fertilizer runoff from rivers. According to NPR, there’s already about 20 million tons of sargassum floating in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mid-Atlantic, and some of it is already washing ashore in the Florida Keys, Barbados and Mexico.

But Does a Sargassum Bloom Count as Force Majeure?

Between kicking through the piles of rotting seaweed and the smell, this could be a detriment to the beautiful beachy getaway you had planned for your incentive qualifiers. But would it rise to the level of an Act of God to trigger your force majeure clause if you want to cancel? Barbara Dunn, Partner, Barnes and Thornburg LLC and MeetingMentor’s legal columnist, says, “I’ll need to give the ‘it depends’ answer. If the force majeure provision in the contract refers to inadvisable (from a health/safety standpoint or commercially impracticable) and the group can show that the health hazard, safety, etc., would have that level of impact on its performance, then perhaps it could cancel the contract on that basis.”

However, she adds, “My recommendation would be for planners to gather as much info about the possible issue, discuss with hotel, get a plan on how to address it, and be prepared to respond to attendee questions on the topic or be proactive with pre-meeting announcements.”

Destinations to the Rescue

Destinations are eying this year’s sargassum predictions warily, but they’ve been there before and are calling for all hands on deck to keep it at bay — literally. In some top Mexican coastal resort areas, they’re calling on the Navy for help. In addition to putting massive containers on some of its more popular beaches to collect the sargassum, Playa del Carmen, located about 80 kilometers south of Cancun, is working with the Mexican Navy to put barriers in place out at sea to corral the stuff before it can make it to shore. The Mexican resort town of Tulum also is working with the Navy on similar efforts, as well as volunteer organizations and nearby resorts.

Once it does wash ashore, it’s mainly a matter of getting an army of workers to rake the sargassum off the beaches and cart it off to … somewhere. But with the amounts now washing up on beaches, it can be overwhelming to find ways to treat the waste. Some resort areas, such as Cancun, are going high-tech in their sargassum seek-and-destroy efforts. That city has partnered with a private company to turn about 600 tons of sargassum per day into biofertilizers. However, it still takes a huge workforce, both paid and volunteer, to rake it off the beaches and take it to the company’s waste centers to be processed.

Then there are lower tech alternatives. For example, Pensacola, Fla., is planning to scoop up the sargassum and take it just a few yards back into the dunes, where they’ll bury it and let it fertilize the dune vegetation, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

However nasty the sargassum bloom turns out to be this summer — you can add a sargassum watch on the Sargassum Monitoring site to your due-diligence list if you have concerns — most resorts already have crews of beach cleaners who rake the beaches and dispose of the trash, flotsam, jetsam and seaweed, including sargassum. It just may be a much bigger job this year than it was in the past. If perchance your resort’s beaches become so inundated with the gunk that they can’t keep up, have a Plan B in your pocket for activities on leeward and westward-facing beaches, which generally tend to attract less wind-, sea- and current-driven detritus.


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