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Seaweed bloom threatens Florida coastlines and Gulf of Mexico tourism

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  • Staff Report 

A massive sargassum bloom, an algae variety, is on a collision course with the shores of Florida and other Gulf of Mexico coastlines, causing concerns over the tourist season and health hazards. Since scientists began tracking these accumulations in 2011, this year’s sargassum bloom is expected to be the largest, spanning over 5,000 miles from the coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Brian Lapointe of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute expects it to hit the Florida coast in July.

While the algae bloom has its benefits, such as being a habitat for marine life and a nursery area for commercially important fishes, it becomes problematic when it hits the beaches, piling up in mounds, emitting a gas with a foul smell, and choking marine life in dead zones. The rotting algae releases toxic hydrogen sulfide, causing respiratory problems, and contains arsenic in its flesh, posing health risks if ingested or used for fertilizer.

Lapointe warns of the catastrophic problem that sargassum creates for tourism, with locals in Barbados using up to 1,600 dump trucks per day to clean the beaches. Research institutions have launched the Sargassum Information Hub website, which aims to provide information on the topic.

The sargassum bloom is dependent on ecological factors such as changes in nutrients, rainfall, wind conditions, and currents at sea. Elements such as phosphorus and nitrogen from human activities, including agriculture and fossil fuel production, dumped into the sea from rivers, serve as food for the algae. Researchers are looking for ways to mitigate its impact on beaches, such as sinking the seaweed to the bottom of the ocean or harvesting it for commercial products like soap.

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