Our Town with William Kelly: Palm Beach casts wary eye at giant seaweed blob

William Kelly  |  Our Beaches  |  Our Town  |  March 31, 2023

The town says it’s keeping a close watch on the massive Atlantic Ocean seaweed belt that appears headed toward beaches in Florida and the Caribbean Sea.

The town normally cleans only its public beaches, where it rakes and buries the seaweed when necessary. The state does not allow it to be hauled away to a dump site, town officials have said.

But officials are concerned that the town could be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of foul-smelling, brown sargassum seaweed that threatens to wash up on its beaches this summer.

“It’s alarming how much is potentially coming our way and it’s more than we’ve had to deal with before,” Coastal Program Manager Rob Weber told the Shore Protection Board on Thursday.

The shore board voted 7-0 to ask town staff to explore available technologies and suggest a pilot project to remove the offending seaweed, which emits an odor similar to rotten eggs as it rots on the shore.

Sargassum occurs naturally and typically washes up on the beaches between March and October, the warmer months of the year.

Over the past decade, the thick and stringy seaweed has become a growing nuisance in the Caribbean, South Florida and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Satellite images captured in February show that this year there is an earlier and larger accumulation of sargassum blooms than seen in the past. Vast fields of the seaweed have formed a 5,000-mile-long belt stretching from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The size of this blob is as wide as the continental United States,” Weber said.

Weber said the town has access to satellite imagery of the gargantuan floating biomass through CLS, the French satellite services provider. CLS is the parent company of Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Group, which is a coastal consultant to Palm Beach. The satellite data is updated weekly.

“We are closely monitoring the blob and preparing as much as we can for when it comes to our shore,” Weber said.

Its arrival depends on the movement of the wind and waves, Weber said. Last year, the sargassum arrived later in the season, and piled up three to four feet deep on the North End beach, near the Palm Beach Inlet jetty. The town gained special permission from state environmental agencies to collect and bury the seaweed at the beach. But nature acted first, washing it away during hurricane season.

The sargassum is not in itself toxic to humans. But, when left untouched upon the shore, its decomposition releases gases that can cause respiratory problems.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection regards the sargassum as marine habitat and does not allow its removal from the ocean with nets or any other device, Weber said. Local governments are only permitted to collect it from the shore.

At Thursday’s meeting, resident Brad Gary suggested the town consider buying a boat to skim the seaweed from the water before it reaches the shore, an approach not currently allowed by the DEP.

But Weber said there is so much of the sargassum floating out in the ocean that a “navy of vessels” couldn’t remove it.

Shore board members said the town shouldn’t be trying to tackle the problem on its own. The board, which advises the Town Council on coastal protection matters, recommended close cooperation with state and federal agencies.

Shore board Vice Chairman Warren Belmar said the sargassum presents a threat to state tourism. The town should be coordinating its response with the state and county, said Belmar, who is a Palm Beach Civic Association director.

Weber said the county does not rake its beaches.

Board Chairwoman Melissa Ceriale suggested forming a coalition to tackle the problem jointly.

“Maybe we need to band together with other communities and be at the forefront in pushing the state for action,” she said.

Town Council meeting on Monday

The sargassum issue is on the agenda for Monday’s council meeting, which begins at 9:30 a.m. in Town Hall. The council will consider a resolution authorizing a $1 million contract with Beach Keepers Inc., a non-profit organization based in Delray Beach, to clean up the sargassum for five years, council President Margaret Zeidman said Friday.

Beach Keepers would be expected to rake and bury the sargassum on the beach in the North End, on the public beaches, and in other sargassum “hot spots” that might pop up, Zeidman said.

Sea turtle nesting activity would have to be closely monitored to protect nests and hatchlings during the raking and burial of the seaweed, she said.

“We cannot allow it to accumulate to the levels that it did last year,” Zeidman said.


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