Will Dredging the Zaragoza Canal Hurt Xcalak?

A coastal community of 400 people, at the end of a barren, 40-mile swath of asphalt through the jungle—Xcalak’s seclusion is part of its draw. Here in the Costa Maya (the region south of the famous Riviera Maya) development has been deliberately limited by the Mexican government.

Until now.

The Zaragoza Canal

Four and a half miles south of Xcalak and just two miles north of the Mexico-Belize border, the narrow Zaragoza canal joins the turquoise Caribbean Sea with the shallow (also turquoise) Bay of Chetumal.

The 0.8-mile Zaragoza Canal was built in 1901, to make it possible for small boats to travel from the sea to the city of Chetumal, while remaining completely within Mexican waters.

The Mexican navy has a strong presence in Xcalak, including a base at the entrance to the canal. (And before you go to see it, know that they don’t want curious gringos driving in even if the gate is wide open.) The navy has a base here to monitor boat traffic moving across the canal to prevent border-jumping, illegal shipments, drug trade, and other nefarious hijinks.

Due to the shallow depth of the Bay of Chetumal, and the narrow width of the Zaragoza Canal, it is impossible for large watercraft to navigate from the Caribbean Sea to Chetumal.

But that’s about to change.

The proposed development

Governor Carlos Joaquín González is committed to developing the Zaragoza Canal – making it wider, longer, and deeper. The plan is to make the canal 164 feet wide and dredged to 10 feet deep. The canal also needs to be extended 3 miles into the Bay of Chetumal, more than tripling the length of the current canal.

They’ve also want to build an in-sea, ecological watch tower so the navy can “protect marine areas”. This watch tower’s got some swanky digs planned – bedrooms, a kitchenette, desalination system, toilet facilities, and even an environmental lab are going in.

Oh, and that pesky Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that everyone loves—it needs to be dynamited because big boats need to reach the canal somehow, right?

The idea is that, when completed, passenger boats and cargo ships could use the Zaragoza Canal to pass from Bay to Sea, bolstering tourism and trade in Mexico’s south. Xcalak’s commercial economy would benefit, and the town could maximize its tourist-related earning potential too. Yay?

This project is supposed to take three years and it ain’t cheap – the price tag is over $100 million USD.

What’s the problem?

Not everyone is jacked about this new development, least of all environmental experts, scientists, and the residents of communities like Xcalak that rely on a healthy ecosystem. Among the opponents are ECOSUR and the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.

Fish and other marine life in the canal rely on its waters for spawning and feeding. One of the biggest issues with dredging and widening the Zaragoza Canal, is that it will increase currents, which, along with the actual dredging, scours up sediments from the sea floor. When these sediments re-settle, they will smother aquatic vegetation and sea life.

The widening-of-the-canal sediment (and the waterborne sediment from dredging) will also harm nearby mangrove forests, home to protected marine wildlife.

In addition to the above, there’s one more environmental concern that’s been floating ashore for the last few years. Sargassum. With a big, wide opening to sea, massive floats of sargassum, that have occasionally inundated the Yucatan coast, will have a much easier time getting into the Bay of Chetumal—causing all kinds of problems along the way.

The future

The dredging of the Zaragoza Canal in Xcalak has begun. The watch tower construction has started. And now we must wait to see the impacts.

  • Will the canal end up accommodating large vessels?
  • Will construction get abandoned part way through?
  • Will it finish ahead of schedule (ha, this is Mexico!)?

Regardless, changes are already happening for the seascape and for the marine life around Xcalak. And whatever those changes lead to, you can bet it’s the local residents and communities around the canal that will feel the consequences most.

Learn more about development (or potential development) around Xcalak in  What’s the Deal with the “Mayan Train”?