What is being called a "massive, smelly blob" of seaweed is now heading toward Florida, experts say, and it could arrive earlier than June.
What does that mean for the Village of Key Biscayne, where last year 413 truckloads were required to haul away 7,420 cubic yards of the stringy, slimy, stinky brown sargassum (the fancier word for seaweed)?
"We're aware of it, but how much is going to get to Florida depends on wind currents and Mother Nature," said Dr. Roland Samimy, the Village's Chief of Resiliency and Sustainability. "We are giving folks a heads-up that it might be a heavy seaweed year."
According to news reports, the "blob" doubled in size in December and again in January, and although the amount decreased in the Atlantic Ocean, still between 6.1 and 8.7 million tons could be headed toward Florida's beaches, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
The 1,100 square-mile patch could fill some 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to University of Miami environmental engineers.
Satellite imagery from the University of South Florida's Sargassum Watch System (SaWS) project shows Florida, using hurricane terms, in the "Cone of Uncertainty." Experts there say, although there has been a slight decrease lately, the forecast still calls for a "major" sargassum year, and "the Florida Keys may start to see small amounts in March."
The Village of Key Biscayne's contract with Florida Beach Raker calls for a fixed rate and will be budgeted "about the same" for Fiscal Year 2024," Dr. Samimy said.
The contract is for $780,000 (about $65,000 a month), but $200,000 of that goes toward grooming the beach.
The fortunate part of having a contract like this is, if a "blob" of such magnitude were to approach the island, Beach Raker would still be responsible for the increased collection at the same price.
"The reason we did it that way is cost savings," Dr. Samimy said. "You can say I'm going to commit to a certain number of trucks, but if you need more, up-front negotiations (results in) a better price than having to buy, say, a la carte trucks."
"More often than not" (because of recent sargassum trends), a deal like this would be to the Village's advantage, he said.
The reason the swath of seaweed has been labeled as an unscientific "blob" came after a Boynton Beach Ocean Rescue chief was quoted, exaggerating, in a USA Today story: "Our beach could literally be clean at 8 a.m. and three to four hours later a giant mat of sargassum the size of a mall will come in like the blob, like a Stephen King movie."
On Key Biscayne, the Oceana condo has two beach access paths for trucks, used for beach renourishment and seaweed pickup. Noise from the trucks is one concern but, of course, a filthy beach is likely the bigger issue.
"We're reaching out to (those residents)," Dr. Samimy said, hoping to get a gauge on what they'd like to see "for meeting the level of service with what the community wants. We're sort of in a wait-and-see mode."
In the right amounts, sargassum is essential for marine life, experts say. But too much can cause environmental, ecological and economic problems. As it decomposes on the beach, it begins to stink as hydrogen sulfide is released, and becomes toxic to fish.
Traditionally on Key Biscayne, May to September has been the period for the heaviest amounts of sargassum.
"It's an unfortunate indication of what we're doing to the environment," Dr. Samimy said. "It's getting worse and we have more to deal with. What we're doing over time indicates an imbalance. When you warm the sea surface up and put a lot of nutrients in there, plants like sargassum like to grow, and then (combine that with) ocean currents and wind currents ... it's a lot of seaweed."
Dr. Samimy isn't worried about this latest "blob," however.
"It's not worrying, just frustrating," he said. "We'll have a lot of people complaining about how it smells, and why we can't do anything (to prevent it). But when people start complaining, they just need to look in the mirror."
In the past couple of years, the Village has been looking at several methods in which sargassum could be turned into a valuable resource, even connecting with a worm farm that would eventually turn the seaweed into compost from worm excrement.
"That's why," Dr. Samimy said, "we're trying to figure out alternative (solutions) for the problem that nature keeps throwing at us."
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