Will our beaches lose their national rankings because of sargassum seaweed?
Dr. Beach says the stinky seaweed could cost Florida points in annual beach rankings.
A seaweed scourge on Florida’s southeast coast could mean a downgrade in national rankings released each year by Dr. Beach with one popular park already taking a hit.
Dr. Beach, whose real name is Stephen Leatherman, director of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research, grades America’s beaches on a 50-point scale that includes whether the shore is awash in stinky, buggy, scratchy sargassum.
This summer is the second consecutive year mats of seaweed have menaced South Florida from the Keys to the Treasure Coast.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park near Miami suffered the consequences in 2019′s Top 10 rankings, which are released near Memorial Day.
“I took off Cape Florida this year because of sargassum build up,” Leatherman said. “A small amount of sargassum is fine but the kind of quantity we are seeing is like a sewer breaking open.”
When sargassum decays it releases hydrogen sulfide gas and ammonia that can smell like rotten eggs and even cause respiratory distress in people with breathing problems.
There’s no clear cause of the massive amounts of sargassum, which comes and goes with the tides and the wind, but can build up on beaches not cleaned regularly.
Palm Beach County is especially susceptible to getting seaweed on its beaches because of its close proximity to the Gulf Stream, which is carrying the sargassum north. Easterly wind, which is the predominant summertime flow, blows it ashore.
“You can’t turn a blind eye to this thing,” Leatherman said. “It will come back to bite you.”
While some cities, towns and resorts are doing periodic sargassum cleanups, turtle nesting season hampers a widespread deep clean.
“The county has seen an increase in the amount of seaweed beaching in south county over the past week,” said Andy Studt, program supervisor for Palm Beach County’s Coastal Resources Management. “As I have previously mentioned, Palm Beach County has additional considerations on this topic relative to our southerly neighbors due to significantly greater marine turtle nesting densities.”
Leatherman suggests using floating booms, like what are used during oil spills, to keep the sargassum away from the beach and near shore water where people swim.
He also thinks Florida should implement a sargassum rating system so that if tourists come to visit a particular beach that is laden with seaweed, they would know where to find a clear beach.
“I don’t see that working,” said Glenn Jorgensen, executive director of Discover the Palm Beaches. “It would be very time-consuming.”
Jorgensen said the plethora of sargassum has come up at county Tourism and Development Council meetings but that only a few people have called asking about it and whether it would sully their vacation.
“When you explain to the people on the phone that it’s natural and it might be here one day and gone the next, they understand,” Jorgensen said.
Palm Beach County does have a daily online report of beach conditions for areas north and south. Both regions listed seaweed as a “hazard” on Friday.
A sargassum forecast released this week by the University of South Florida said the amount of sargassum in the Central West Atlantic and Caribbean Sea is higher than previous years, which means frequent beaching events in South Florida will continue possibly through September.
“I call Palm Beach one of the three ‘gold coasts’ with the Hamptons and Malibu,” Leatherman said. “It’s world famous and I don’t want to see it lose that distinction.”