By Mary Thurwachter
It’s that time of year again, when sargassum blankets the beach, encroaching on beachgoers’ space. It’s nothing new, but nonetheless irritating to people looking for ample room to spread out beach towels, anchor umbrellas and feel the hot sand beneath their feet as they make their way to the ocean.
The problem is not unique to Lantana, but when the brown seaweed hogs so much of the compact — just under 800 feet — town shoreline, tempers rise. And beachgoers are not shy about voicing complaints.
“My granddaughter says ‘it stinks,’” says Karen Lythgoe, vice mayor pro tem. And young Sadie is not alone. Eddie Crockett, the town’s director of operations, and Town Manager Deborah Manzo have gotten an earful from disgruntled sunbathers.
Some municipalities have their shorelines mechanically raked regularly, but Lantana doesn’t.
The matter came up at the town’s May 24 meeting, when Crockett asked the Town Council for direction ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.
“Right now we are having one of those very challenging times,” Crockett said. “There’s so much sargassum and beachgoers are the ones most directly impacted.”
“We don’t have a whole lot of space for our beach,” Manzo said of the sargassum. “We bury as much as we can, and then, at some point, we run out of space. The reason we added this to the agenda is the holiday is coming up and we just wanted to start it happening and made sure we brought it to council.”
Mayor Robert Hagerty, who has been on the job since mid-March, asked what prevented the town from having some type of mechanical device raking the beach.
Crockett said a 2016 directive from the council prohibits the removal of natural debris such as sargassum and allows the use of a mechanical rake only to the east side of the median high tide line traversing the beach. Often, that is only a small portion of the beach. And when raking is done, space for burying the seaweed quickly fills, so the extra sometimes is tossed back in the sea.
To the point raised by Lythgoe’s granddaughter, Crockett explained that “as the seaweed starts to decompose, it gives off an unpleasant smell and the tiny organisms that live in it may irritate the skin if a person comes into contact with it.”
Lythgoe said the sargassum would always be a problem.
“It’s normal,” she said. “It goes all the way from Brazil to the coast of Florida. All the action to mitigate it has to be done locally. We have to do something. When it decomposes on the beach, it smells. If it goes back into the water, it kills sea grass roots, which is what the turtles feed on. So we’ve got to weigh the nuisance versus the environmental impact.”
During a phone conversation with Ligia Collado-Vides, associate chair of the marine biology department at Florida International University, Lythgoe learned of things that can be done, but said the one thing not to do is to put sargassum back into the sea.
“If you’re going to do something at all with it, she said the best option is to bury it,” Lythgoe explained. “But you have to protect the sea turtles. For the long term, we can contact Heather Armstrong from Recycle Florida Today. There are a number of research projects going on about how you can reuse and recycle sargassum. There’s bioplastics, biofuel and research about using it for cosmetics and soaps.”
But what to do now? Hagerty entertained a motion to rake the beach twice a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Lythgoe made the motion, but it failed when it didn’t get a second. Council member Lynn Moorhouse was absent.
“Since the Town Council rejected the beach raking initiative, we will not be conducting any mechanical or manual beach raking operations this summer unless otherwise directed by Town Council,” Crockett said in an email after the meeting. “With Memorial Day coming and the manner in which tides come and go, it is very difficult to predict how much sargassum seaweed will accumulate on the beach at any given time. Last year, Town Council authorized mechanical beach raking operations from the Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.”
In other business, the council approved a contract not to exceed $81,000 with Pro Construction Consultants to install an alum-inum railing at the beach.