Beachgoers have been reporting mounds of seaweed washing up on the shores of South Florida and scientists say record amounts are choking the coasts of the Atlantic and the Caribbean.
“I’ve never seen it like this. Never,” said Gigi Rodriguez, a beachgoer trying to avoid the soggy situation on Dania Beach.
“It’s all over the place. We tried to go farther in, but the farther you get, the more seaweed you’re going to get all over,” said Tanya Suarez, another beachgoer on Dania Beach.
Besides being a stinky and itchy nuisance, experts say we’re seeing more Sargassum seaweed than usual across the entire Atlantic.
“The month of June in 2022 had a record high Sargassum amount compared to any previous year,” said Chuanmin Hu, a professor with the University of South Florida’s Oceanography Lab.
According to a recent report from the lab, over 24 million tons of Sargassum were found across the Atlantic in June, compared to 18.8 million tons in May. The numbers for July are starting to level off for now.
“In the past five or six years we tend to see more and more sargassum than five or six years ago,” said Hu.
Seasonal seaweed is nothing new as it’s been creeping up since 2011, but experts have been looking into the cause. Hu says climate change could be at play as warmer waters could be causing higher algal blooms. Nitrogen-dense runoff from fertilizers, winds and currents could be a factor too.
“It may be remotely connected to everything including climate change and human activities, but the most plausible theory is that prior to 2011, in the year of 2010, there was a stronger than usual wind and surface ocean current that brought some Sargassum from the Sargasso Sea to the tropic Atlantic,” said Hu.
Sargassum is a habitat for small fish and crabs, but too much can kill wildlife such as sea turtle nests. While not toxic to humans, the rotting seaweed on the sand can create quite a strong odor. The eyesore can also threaten tourism.
“I think it looks gross. I was expecting to be able to go in the water closer to the coast but I actually don’t feel comfortable,” said Kayla Golphin, who was visiting Florida from Cleveland.
Some cities have tried to clean up the seaweed, but it can be expensive and can cause beach erosion. In 2019, the Parks Department said they spent an estimated $45 million dollars removing Sargassum from a 15-mile stretch of beaches in Miami-Dade County.
There are studies looking into renewable ways to convert the seaweed into natural fertilizer, but more research is being done to find long-term solutions.