Nathan Hecker fishes from the beach in Gulf Stream as Clayton Peart, president of Universal Beach Services Corp., rakes and buries sargassum. He has a contract with private property owners. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Jane Musgrave
When Tom Fitzpatrick arrived at Delray Municipal Beach early one Saturday in mid-May, he was stunned to see it covered with thick brown seaweed.
Although he had heard about a giant blob lurking offshore and had occasionally seen clumps of the stuff dotting the beach, he said the sheer volume was shocking.
“I’ve never seen it so bad,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’ve got to figure it out.”
For the last several months, officials in Palm Beach County’s southernmost coastal communities have been trying to do just that.
Pointing to a record-breaking 13 million-ton belt of seaweed stretching 5,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Africa, marine scientists are predicting Florida’s east coast beaches will be inundated this summer with the particular type of macroalgae known as sargassum.
Anticipating their phones will light up with complaints from oceanside residents and beachgoers, officials in Delray Beach, Ocean Ridge and other beachside communities began exploring what, if anything, they could do to prepare for a possible onslaught.
With the exception of Ocean Ridge, the answer came back: Not much.
While it might be unsightly and smelly, sargassum is important to marine life, particularly the millions of baby sea turtles that will begin emerging from the thousands of nests along county beaches in the coming months, experts say.
Further, other communities have discovered that raking sargassum into piles and trying to cart it away caused bigger problems, said Delray Beach Public Works Director Missie Barletto. Not only do piles of seaweed become smellier and more obtrusive, but removal is expensive.
Miami-Dade County estimated it could spend as much as $6 million removing sargassum from its beaches this year.
If huge waves of sargassum begin arriving in southern Palm Beach County, steps can be taken then, Barletto advised Delray Beach commissioners at a meeting on May 16.
“So much of whether it’s a problem on the beach or not is dependent on wind direction and wave action,” she said. “It’s not one of those things that I think you can have significant plans for in advance. You kind of have to deal with it when it happens.”
Economic harm possible
Stephen Leatherman, a professor of coastal science at Florida International University who is known as “Dr. Beach” for his annual Top 10 list of beaches nationwide, isn’t sure waiting is the best approach.
He noted that the presence of sargassum stripped all beaches along Florida’s east coast from his Top 10 list this year. The potential economic impact from loss of tourism could be devastating, he said.
“Sargassum is a monster and South Florida has a bull’s-eye on it,” he said. “We’ve got to find something to do with it.”
Palm Beach County environmental experts recommend sargassum be left to the whims of Mother Nature. Tides will either carry it back to sea or it will rot away, said Andy Studt, supervisor of coastal resources management for the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management.
“The county takes very much a hands-off approach,” he said. “We leave it in place.”
While sharing Studt’s view of sargassum’s important ecological benefits, Delray Beach and Boca Raton don’t completely follow the county’s lead.
Both cities use tractors to rake their public beaches and bury the seaweed in the sand.
“So, we don’t remove it,” said Samuel Metott, Delray’s director of parks and recreation. “But for visitors of the beach, it kind of disappears a little bit. It just looks like a darker, shadier portion of the sand.”
While Delray hires a private company, spending $78,000 annually, Boca Raton uses city crews. A Boca Raton spokeswoman said city officials are lining up an outside company to respond if masses of sargassum become too much to handle.
At the urging of Vice Mayor Steve Coz, Ocean Ridge is considering hiring a firm to rake its beaches.
Not only would raking remove the seaweed, but, more important, it could help the town solve an even thornier problem: erosion.
Having lived in Ocean Ridge since 1985, Coz said he has watched the shoreline shrink. If the dune is breached, “we could be in serious trouble.”
Sargassum could be raked from the beach and pushed up along the dunes to stabilize them, he said. Although town officials embraced his proposal at a meeting on May 1, obstacles remain.
A permit must be obtained from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Also, because the town operates no public beach, private landowners would have to give their OK.
Town Manager Lynne Ladner said she is awaiting approval from the state agency. Coz said oceanfront landowners in a 200-foot “test area” at the beach access point at the end of Woolbright Road have agreed to pay for the raking.
With the six-month hurricane season underway, Coz said the town must act quickly. “If a real storm comes in there … we could be in serious trouble, like serious trouble, if that dune is washed away any further.”
Despite their hands-off approach, county officials said some steps can be taken if the predicted deluge of sargassum materializes.
For example, the seaweed can be raked by hand to create pathways so beach-lovers can reach their beloved shore, Studt said. “In an extreme event, it could be piled up to a point,” he said.
A lifeboat for hatchlings
The simultaneous arrival of the sargassum and sea turtle nesting seasons creates a unique set of problems. Once nesting season began on March 1, rakers were required to consult sea turtle watchers before combing the beach.
Sea turtle nests are protected. Palm Beach County is traditionally one of the state’s top destinations for the threatened and endangered species. Loggerhead, green, leatherback and sometimes hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley turtles flock to the county to lay their eggs.
“Palm Beach County has about 40,000 nests each year which produce millions of eggs and hatchlings,” Studt said.
For hatchlings that make it to the sea, sargassum is their lifeboat. They float in the seaweed, which captures small creatures they can eat. “It’s their refuge,” he said.
“It’s super important for hatchling survival,” said Lexie Dvoracek, conservation program manager for Sea Turtle Adventures. “Without it, they don’t have a habitat to protect them.”
The nonprofit monitors nesting activity in a roughly 3-mile stretch from George Bush Boulevard in Delray Beach to Woolbright Road in Ocean Ridge.
Some worry that mounds of sargassum will make it difficult for hatchlings to make their already arduous journey to the ocean. Dvoracek said that last year workers found a few hatchlings that looked like they may have gotten stuck in the seaweed.
But, she said, a bigger problem is the well-meaning, but misguided, people who pick up the tiny turtles and drop them in the ocean. Instead of helping the creatures, they unwittingly doom them because the turtles aren’t yet strong enough to swim.
“Just leave them and call us,” she advised, adding that touching hatchlings is a federal offense.
Other human influences, such as lights west of the beach, are a greater threat to hatchlings than sargassum, Studt said. Artificial light can confuse them.
“When hatchlings come out of the nest, they are looking for the starlit point on the horizon,” he said. “Their natural instinct is to go to the light.”
Both Dvoracek and Studt said they have seen no evidence that sargassum blocks adult sea turtles from coming ashore to dig their nests. International research is ongoing.
So far, Dvoracek said it appears this will be a banner year for turtle nesting. As of late May more than 110 nests had been made on the stretch her group monitors, roughly double the number counted at this time last year.
The nests included one dug by a Kemp’s ridley turtle. The rarest and most endangered species of sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley normally nests in Texas and Mexico, she said.
“We’re very excited,” Dvoracek said of the nest that was discovered on April 30. “Florida sees less than 20 annually. It’s the first one we’ve seen in our area in 25 years.”
Like others, she is cautiously optimistic that this year won’t bring record amounts of sargassum to shore.
As Fitzpatrick and other beachgoers have already discovered, some days it covers the beach. But, Dvoracek said, days later it’s gone.
Leatherman said he is hopeful scientists and entrepreneurs will figure out ways to keep it from making landfall. Some ideas he has heard of, such as sinking it far off shore, sound promising, he said.
Researchers at the University of Miami and the University of Florida are exploring ways to turn it into compost. The key is ridding it of arsenic and other toxic heavy metals.
In the meantime, beachgoers need to understand how important the seaweed is to the coastal ecosystem, Dvoracek said.
“Instead of getting rid of it, we have to learn to exist in harmony,” she said.
But, she admitted, the potential for a large mass of sargassum moving ashore is concerning.
“It’s going to be a weird season,” she said.