Giant seaweed ‘blob’ heading toward Florida a threat to beaches and coastal residents

Seaweed visible from space is causing health concerns for Southwest Florida as residents and visitors alike are warned to stay out of “red tide” washing tons of dead fish up onto the shore.

Estimated to weigh 20 million tons, the “Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt” stretches between the Atlantic coast of Africa toward the Gulf of Mexico, spanning 5,000 miles, nearly double the distance across the United States. Sargassum, a type of brown macroalgae, does provide benefits for certain marine life, absorbing carbon dioxide, but along the Southwest coast of Florida and throughout the Caribbean, it is causing a detriment to the ecosystem and people.

“What we’re seeing in the satellite imagery does not bode well for a clean beach year,” Florida Atlantic University research professor Brian LaPointe of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute told NBC News.

The annual growth is suspected to be the largest ever and as it decomposes, it can release hydrogen sulfide into the air and water and by blocking the sun, it negatively impacts coral as well. As a result, coastal communities have been dealing with cleaning up tons of fish dying as a result of the “red tide,” so-called because of the tinge the algae adds to the waters.

Mandy Edmunds, a parks supervisor in St. Pete Beach, Florida told the Tampa Bay Times that half a ton of fish have been cleared from their shores just since the beginning of the month as the problem, typically occurring in the fall, has lingered near to spring.

“I cannot say when it’s going to go away,” Bob Weisberg, former director of the University of South Florida’s Ocean Circulation Lab, told the outlet. “It could very well bet that this thing may linger.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has warned people not to swim in red tide waters and to avoid the areas as exposure can lead to skin irritation, rashes as well as burning and sore eyes. Other problems include the potential to “block intake valves for things like power plants or desalination plants. Marinas can get completely inundated and boats can’t navigate through,” Brian Barnes, University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science assistant research professor, explained to NBC News.

The threat posed left the community of Indian Rocks Beach, Florida already canceling the annual BeachFest event scheduled for next month in a letter distributed to the public by the homeowner’s association that read, “Red Tide is currently present on the beach and is forecasted to remain in the area in the weeks to come.”

“It is unfortunate that it had to be canceled but it is the best decision in the interest of public health,” they explained.

For some, the problem was relative as visitors from Toronto told WFLA, “The first few days we were down here, we were coughing a little bit and the itchy throat. We would rather have that than the snow, so it’s great being down here.”

Kevin Haggerty


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