(CMR) An enormous mass of seaweed, known as sargassum, which formed in the Atlantic Ocean, is expected to dump smelly and potentially dangerous heaps across beaches in the Caribbean, putting a damper on the tourist season.
Although seaweed has been affecting beaches over the years, this year's sargassum mass could be the largest on record — spanning more than 5,000 miles from the coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico, according to CNN.
The seaweed is reportedly headed for the shores of Florida and other coastlines throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The sargassum is expected to pass through the Caribbean and up into the Gulf of Mexico during the summer.
Dr. Brian Lapointe, a Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute researcher, told CNN this year's sargassum bloom began to form early and doubled in size between December and January.
Lapointe said the mass “was larger in January than it has ever been since this new region of sargassum growth began in 2011.”
“This is an entirely new oceanographic phenomenon that is creating such a problem — really a catastrophic problem — for tourism in the Caribbean region where it piles up on beaches up to 5 or 6 feet deep,” Lapointe added.
He noted that in Barbados, locals used “1,600 dump trucks a day to clean the beaches of this seaweed to make it suitable for tourists and recreation on the beaches.”
The Cayman Islands have had to deal with its share of sargassum; a trial to remove the seaweed from North Side last year failed.
Sargassum refers to more than 300 species of brown algae; however, sargassum natans and sargassum fluitans are the two species most commonly found in the Atlantic. While sargassum has a foul smell, it provides food and protection for fishes, mammals, marine birds, crabs, and more. It also serves as a critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles and as a nursery area for a variety of commercially important fishes such as mahi mahi, jacks, and amberjacks.
The problems arise when sargassum hits the beaches, piling up in mounds that can be physically difficult to navigate and emitting a gas that can smell like rotten eggs.
Lapointe said that it could quickly turn from an asset to a threat to ocean life as it comes in in such large quantities that it sucks the oxygen out of the water and creates dead zones.
“These are normally nursery habitats for fisheries … and once they're devoid of oxygen, we have lost that habitat,” He told CNN.
Sargassum can also be dangerous to human health as the gas that the rotting algae releases, hydrogen sulfide, is toxic and can cause respiratory problems, Lapointe noted.
“You have to be very careful when you clean the beaches,” he warned.
The seaweed also contains arsenic in its flesh, making it dangerous if ingested or used for fertilizer.