Key West has a problem that, in all likelihood, isn’t going away anytime soon.
Large amounts of a smelly seaweed, called sargassum, have appeared in the Caribbean Sea every summer since 2011 — except in 2013. This year, a record-breaking amount of sargassum was spotted in the Caribbean Sea in April, according to the University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab.
Now, the sargassum has reached Key West, Florida.
When Ginny Matts and Jason Hytreck arrived in Key West and first saw the sargassum, they were “shocked,” according to CNN.
“It’s like 75 yards of seaweed out before you even hit clear water,” Hytreck said. “I grew up in Florida and I mean, this is not what we expected to see when we came in here — this much seaweed.”
Matts added that the seaweed’s smell even makes swimming in the ocean unappealing.
“It’s a big disappointment as far as that goes really,” Matts said. “When I’m on vacation, I want to be in the water.”
Donna Schaffer, another tourist visiting Key West, said the seaweed is a “nuisance.”
“We came here to walk on the beach, and we had to walk through seaweed to get to the beach, so it’s not that much fun,” Schaffer said, according to CNN.
On the other hand, Schaffer also notes that there’s not much that can be done about the situation.
“Well, it’s nature,” Schaffer said. “It’s going to do what it’s going to do, you can’t stop it.”
A Different Type Of Seaweed
Sargassum is a brown alga, or seaweed. What’s different about it, though, is that, unlike other seaweeds, it isn’t attached to the ocean floor. Instead, it floats freely in the ocean.
Importantly, these free-floating forms create their own ecosystem and provide a habitat for more than 120 species of fish and more than 120 species of invertebrates, according to the Government of the Virgin Islands.
The problem with sargassum is that it eventually washes ashore. The tangles of seaweed can be miles long and there may be tens of thousands of weeds tangled around themselves.
When these tangles reach the coast, it’s not only unsightly, people who want to swim have trouble getting past sargassum to get into the water and small boats are unable to leave ports.
The biggest downside when sargassum washes ashore is that it soon begins to rot and “it produces a sulfur-like smell making it extremely unpleasant for any nearby beachgoers and typically leads to many avoiding the beach completely,” according to the Sargassum Monitoring Network.
What’s more, as the sargassum decomposes, it not only smells bad but also attracts insects and causes environmental problems, USF’s Optical Oceanography Lab explains. For example, the seaweed can smother turtle nesting sites, increase sea turtle mortality rates, and cause fish kills.
Key West’s Clean-Up Efforts
Sargassum clean-up in Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys is relatively straightforward.
Oceanside hotels typically have their own staff or contractors remove sargassum from their property. Meanwhile, Florida Keys County and municipal officials say they are removing sargassum from public beaches as needed.
“We are prepared to keep engaged with our beaches in Marathon,” said George Garrett, city manager for Marathon, a city set on 13 islands in the Florida Keys, according to The Florida Keys & Key West. “We normally rake four times a week, but if we have to, we are ready to beef up patrols.”
Monroe County, Florida, which includes the islands of the Florida Keys, monitors and responds with equipment to Higgs Beach in Key West 7 days a week, said Kevin Wilson, assistant Monroe County manager. If needed, staff will remove the seaweed twice a day, he continued.
“We are ready,” Wilson told The Florida Keys & Key West.
Finally, the City of Key West has a contract with a beach cleaner who cleans beaches every day, Public Information Officer Alyson Crean explains.
“We are prepared to ramp up operations as needed,” Crean said. “Under normal circumstances, the contractor cleans and rakes beaches shortly after dawn every morning, just after turtle watch volunteers walk beaches to identify any nests. Our contractors are prepared.”