It smells, it’s slimy and it may prevent you from entering the water
What is it? Sargassum, a brown foul-smelling seaweed that can be found throughout South Florida and Caribbean beaches. As part of the world’s largest macroalgal bloom, some experts feel it might be here to stay.
Since 2011, there has been an explosive growth in the Atlantic Ocean according to a study led by scientists at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Now known as the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, the growth stretches from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. By using satellite imagery, there are now more than 20 million metric tons.
In the region of the North Atlantic, Sargassum is commonly known as the Sargasso Sea. You can find smaller amounts throughout the ocean. When the amount of seaweed is kept under control, it is part of the ecosystem for species such as eels, sea turtles, crabs, fish, and ocean-going birds.
But, out of control such as it is in the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, it with a problem for both animals and humans. Decaying sargassum will produce hydrogen sulfide, the gas that smells like rotten eggs or sewage. For people on the beach or boaters with asthma, the smell can cause breathing problems.
Large quantities of Sargassum causes several other problems. For the professional fisherman, boats can be blocked from launching, as well as the Sargassum getting tangled in propellers and nets. In their efforts to surface, sea turtles and dolphins may not be able to get through the thick entangled bloom. Further, the seaweed also traps for collecting flies, trash and whatever else washes up.
The cost for cleanup is staggering. In Miami-Dade, it is estimated that removing the seaweed would cost between $35 to $45 million a year. Unfortunately, they feel they have no other choice but to remove it to protect the tourism industry that spends nearly $30 billion a year.
At the beginning of August, cleanup crews throughout South Florida have been targeting beaches with the biggest buildup of Sargassum. By using dump trucks and bulldozers, they scoop it up and haul it out of the sand to local landfills. The crews arrive early in the morning and try to be finished by 10:30 am before the beach visitors arrive. While the crews are working beach, areas look much like construction zones.
The blame for the problem comes from pollution, rising ocean temperatures, amazon deforestation, increased agriculture and the use of fertilizers according to scientists. According to Steve Leatherman, as Florida International University professor, “…a lot of nutrients are now coming down the Amazon River, causing deforestation the sargassum seaweed to now blooming around the Caribbean. The Gulf Stream brings it to South Florida and then the winds blow it onshore.”
“The future is, we are going to have a lot more sargassum like we’ve never had it before,” Leatherman said.