By Dan M. Berger
In what’s become an annual occurrence, seaweed has begun washing ashore from Miami south to Key West.
But a Florida oceanographer says that the potentially harmful impact of this season’s sargassum bloom is likely overstated and that most of the state should dodge a catastrophic effect.
Dr. Zack Jud—director of education at the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, north of Palm Beach—told The Epoch Times on May 1 that Stuart’s beaches didn’t have any seaweed on them, and webcams nearby in Jensen Beach and Hobe Sound showed very little.
Strong west winds over 30 mph for several hours the previous day blew the sargassum out to sea.
Jud said he expected the winds to dictate the beaches’ cleanliness throughout the summer, with east winds blowing it ashore and west winds blowing it back to sea.
His office, he said, is a five-minute walk from the beach.
Researchers have predicted this year’s seaweed bloom may be the largest ever recorded.
And the Florida House and Senate have agreed to include $5 million for seaweed cleanup in this year’s budget, set for passage later this week.
A University of South Florida study released on March 31, 2023, estimates the mass’s weight at 13 million tons and says a large portion of that will hit the east coast and the ocean side of the Florida Keys, probably in June and July.
The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt stretches 5,000 miles from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico, USF oceanographers said. As it drifts westward, its leading edge is large but not of record size.
It’s what’s following it, still in the East Atlantic, that’s enormous.
The seaweed, in average amounts, is benign—providing habitat, food, protection, and breeding ground for hundreds of marine species—according to a fact sheet by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratories.
It can help stop beach erosion.
Jud said the bloom is only incrementally larger than in previous years. Florida beaches have seen significant seaweed come ashore each year since 2018.
The phenomenon began about a decade ago, Jud said, as changing currents started moving seaweed, previously confined to the Sargasso Sea in the central North Atlantic, into currents that ultimately brought it to Florida.
Oceanographers believe it has been amplified by warming ocean waters and fed by more nutrients washing from South America’s Amazon River into the ocean as jungle upstream is cleared for ranchland, Jud said.
“The media this year has spun this as an amorphous blob, that’s going to hit somewhere like a hurricane or an oil spill,” Jud said.
“It’s not like that. Satellite images show, not one superhighway of sargassum, but floating patches. Some wash-up, then in a few days, there’s not as much.”
“It’s received a lot of mainstream media coverage this year, but it’s been as bad the last couple of years,” Jud said.
Problems Further South
He emphasized that seaweed is a real problem, “potentially earth-shattering,” further south in the Caribbean and Central American nations like Honduras, Belize, and Mexico.
The seaweed keeps turtles and birds from nesting, stinks, and attracts flies as it rots, smothers, and kills coral, and impacts tourism, he said.
But “I don’t think it’s necessarily the fate of the east coast of Florida. I’m crossing my fingers.”
It might be a little worse than in previous years, he said, “but we’re not in the bullseye.”
Currents pull the weed first into the Caribbean, and that’s why the problem is the worst there, he said. Then the Loop Current drives it around Florida’s peninsula, where it merges with the north-flowing Gulf Stream.
That current, he says, “is strong. A lot of it stays offshore. It’s like a river within the sea.”
The Florida Oceanographic Society is particularly interested in the seaweed, Jud said, as Stuart is a center for sea turtle nesting. Mother turtles can crawl easily enough over the seaweed, but hatchlings, two or three inches long, get tangled in it as they try to scramble back to sea.
Good and Bad
“The irony is that the No. 1 habitat for them in the ocean is floating mats of sargassum out in the ocean. It’s harmful to them on the beach, but necessary to them when it’s in the open ocean where it belongs.”
And, out at sea, it’s also a fine habitat for sea life like crabs, shrimp, and small fish, plus as a foraging ground for the larger species feeding on them, such as tuna, sailfish, marlin, and mahi mahi, Jud said.
University of South Florida oceanographer Chuanmin Hu told The Epoch Times in an email that the belt is distinct from the Sargasso Sea, a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean known for its calm water and sargassum seaweed.
Online accounts say it was first written about by Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 feared his ships’ being becalmed by the lack of wind and entangled in the seaweed.
“The Sargassum Belt is relatively new, starting from 2011,” Hu told The Epoch Times. “It is connected to the Sargasso Sea through ocean currents. Sargassum in the belt may be transported to the Sargasso Sea, and vice versa.”
Florida businesses and government agencies contacted by The Epoch Times were cautious in their predictions about seaweed’s impact on tourism this summer.
Most said they were monitoring the situation and hadn’t seen any problems yet.