Is Cancun's Beach Nourishment Damaging the Environment?

Final Walk
Final Walk | © Jennifer Williams/Flickr
Perri J

The iconic white-sand beaches that attract millions of tourists to Cancun each year are diminishing with every crashing wave of aquamarine water. These eroding beaches are not only an issue for bikini-clad tourists, but for the Mexican government, environmental agencies, and the hundreds of thousands of Quintana Roo citizens who rely solely on tourism.

The problems in Cancun started in the late 1960s when this resort-town was created. However, rising sea levels and thrashing hurricanes, such as Hurricane Wilma which ripped through the coast in 2005, have exacerbated the situation.

The turquoise ocean lapping Canun’s beaches

When Cancun was first developed it possessed a marshy coastline filled with mangroves and a jungle backdrop. Once developers realized that this area would be a tourism gold mine, they leveled the land, stripped the jungle and created the city that tourists now flock to for a relaxing getaway.

The natural barriers that safeguarded the coastline were removed to create the picturesque image of Cancun that is displayed on postcards, commercials and travel ads. Add this to the fact that Cancun became one of the fastest growing tourist destinations on Earth and it is easy to see how this dilemma quickly escalated.

Cancun is a city built around the tourism industry

Beach erosion is nothing new, it happens on beaches all over the world. It becomes troubling in a place like Cancun because this growing city accounts for a majority of tourism revenue for the entire country. According to the Mexican Tourism Board, Mexico reached over 13.3 billion dollars in international tourist revenue in 2016, a new record for the country. A blow to this resort municipality is a direct strike at Mexico’s economy.

This coastline that depends on tourism from young couples, retirees and families, cannot simply wait for the shoreline to recover on its own. This is where beach nourishment comes in.

Cancun’s beaches are under threat from beach erosion

Beach nourishment is the act of dredging sand from the ocean’s floor and recreating shorelines that have been diminished. This costly procedure is not only controversial because of its burden on tax payers, but also because of its long-lasting environmental repercussions.

Research from the American Institute of Biological Sciences shows that beach nourishment can bury the very coral reefs that are indispensable to the health of the ocean’s dynamic ecosystem. The Mesoamerican Reef – the second largest behind only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia – is among the affected as it extends off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula near Cancun.

The Mesoamerican Reef and its wildlife are under threat from beach nourishment

The habitats that harbor nesting for sea turtles, shorebirds and other tropical fish are transformed, and oftentimes ravaged, in the process of beach nourishment.

One of the main problems with nourishment programs is that most of the research on the environmental impact of dredging comes from the dredging companies themselves. This means that most research is not peer reviewed, data is inconclusive and oftentimes conducted by inadequate “experts.” This creates an enigmatic cloud over the entire initiative.

Beach towns such as Cancun face a harrowing choice. Do they maintain the famous landscapes that keep smiling travelers beach-side with margaritas, or preserve the delicate ecosystems that inhabited the land first?


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