If you want a happy-face spin on the state of Key West sargassum 2022, you best look elsewhere because — wait for it — Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, that black, decaying algae is piled up past my thighs, the off-beach waters are a gooey chocolate sludge and the smell, which can darn near knock you down at first whiff, permeates the island 10 blocks in from the shoreline.
Summer 2022 sargassum blew past previous records for June; July dropped a tad and August is pending, but the University of South Florida, which tracks sargassum, says there’s so much sargassum floating in the open waters right now that we can expect what they call “beaching” for at least a couple more months. In short, if anyone is telling you beaches in Key West, the Keys or on the east coast of Florida are “fine; just a normal summer” you ought ask them if they’ve been outside recently. Either they’re fibbing or the only Key West “beaches” they’ve seen recently are at the sand bars.
Here’s what Florida sargassum expert Brian Lapointe told the Sun-Sentinel on Aug. 5, 2022:
“It’s just too much of a good thing. This is a new record amount of Sargassum in summer 2022 that we’re seeing in the Caribbean and beyond,” said Brian Lapointe, a principal investigator of ecology and water quality at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanic Institute. “It’s affecting coastal ecosystems, sea grasses, coral reefs, — they’re all being affected by this huge excessive amount of Sargassum.”
LaPointe has studied Sargassum for more than three decades, and has yet to see a statewide influx as prolific as the current wave. He said he’s received reports of Sargassum globs as thick as 5 feet in the Palm Beach Inlet that are preventing sea turtle hatchlings from getting to the beach. He’s also heard of beaches in Key West stained a muddy brown.
But, argue many locals, this happens every year and who cares if visitors stop coming because the beaches are nasty? We don’t want them anyway, they say, and since sargassum is “normal,” it’s not harming the environment.
Sargassum is a fact of summer life. Indeed. And in the right amounts, sargassum is critical to the environment. The catch? The sargassum we’ve dealt with since 2011 is not the sargassum of long-timer memories. For more than a decade, sargassum beachings have escalated and the record-setting past four years are raising alarms. So much so that scientists have upped their research and local municipalities are beginning to realize they’ll need more than a couple of tractors to manage summer beaches.
Some Key West folks seem to get a certain pleasure in cheering any reduction in visitors. I get it and I am too frequently among them. The Keys struggle under the load of hundreds of thousands of visitors, vehicles and vacations. But that “I’m here now, so pull up the drawbridge” culture is as unproductive as is the “sargassum happens every summer” crowd. Managing sargassum will take a heavy lift among the city, county, state, federal and local business owners. Though helpful and great for photo ops, a handful of diligent locals with rakes isn’t going to put a dent in the sargassum. Managing it will be a multi-million dollar effort just in Monroe County.
The Key West Planning Board at its 5 p.m., Aug. 18, meeting at City Hall will consider a proposal from Sunset City, LLC (the LaSalle Hotel Operating Partnership located in Bethesda, MD) and the Matilde Generosa Ramos Rev. Trust to install at South Beach a floating seaweed barrier anchored to submerged land owned by the applicant and by the State of Florida. The project would divert sargassum back into the channel and minimize the sargassum beachings.
The planning board staff recommends approval of the proposal with additional provisions for monitoring of adjacent and downstream properties that could be affected negatively. Directly downstream are the beaches of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Finding the appropriate balance between cleaning up South Beach and protecting Fort Zach is imperative if and when the project goes forward. Most of my concerns (turtle nesting, environmental impacts and long-term monitoring and maintenance) are addressed in the proposal and staff review. At first read, I’d say the project has merit and South Beach is a good location to test the efficacy of these permeable barriers (they aren’t nets). You can find the full report HERE.
Monroe County also knows it must get ahead of the increasing sargassum beachings or risk both our fragile island ecosystems and our summer tourism industry. In 2020, Rockport Analytics completed an analysis of the potential impact of sargassum beachings on Monroe County’s tourism industry. The executive summary was anything but encouraging:
The economic impact (lost value added) from a severe sargassum year is estimated at $20 million in our midpoint estimate, which would lead to a nearly $3 million decline in state and local tax collections and 300 lost jobs in Monroe County. From an ROI standpoint, it is important to weigh this impact against the estimated cost of mitigation, which we estimate to be between $3.4 million and $17.8 million.
What can be done?
The Rockport Analytics report went on to recommend the county ask and answer at least five questions. I’d suggest this be a collaborative effort that includes every governmental, environmental, residential and business entity that calls the Keys home. The financial burden and the political burden will need to be shared. We are well past the “who or what is to blame” stage. We are well past “not my problem.” Sargassum has the potential to destroy our ecosystems and damage our most important revenue stream.
- Does the scientific community expect the sargassum problem to improve, stay the same or get worse in the Florida Keys?
- Can a long-run strategy be put into place that amortizes the cost of mitigation over a longer period of time?
- This assessment focuses only on the tourism impacts of sargassum. What are the other negative implications or externalities that could be associated with sargassum activity (e.g., environmental, health, others)? (My note: Let’s also find out whether the often negative water quality reports for beaches in the Keys are tied to our out-sized sargassum.)
- Can other stakeholders (private or public) at a local, state or federal level be engaged to provide additional resources towards mitigation?
- Are there longer-run impacts that might not be included in our model? For example, could there be increasing reports of sargassum in the Keys through social or traditional media that leads to more negative sentiment that compound impacts to visitor demand?
Key West sargassum 2022: Here’s what we found
Ranger Ed and I did a quick walkabout of five Atlantic-facing Key West beaches on this week’s rainy Tuesday morning. Here’s what we found:
- Smathers: The actual beach was OK. So, yeah, you could sit in a chair or dig a sand castle and be happy. As long as you didn’t want one of those postcard, seashore views or some time in the water. The city does daily clean up of Smathers’ sargassum but the decaying piles are knee-height and spreading and the water is like sludge. And, of course, it stinks. But, as a reminder, after about 30 seconds, your brain turns off the smeller. Take a couple of deep breaths and, voila, no stink.
- Higgs: The county does daily clean up, too, with the same results as at Smathers. Sprawling piles of decaying sargassum and nasty water. Ditto smell. See above for solution.
- Dog Beach: Actually pretty decent on Tuesday, which should make lunch at Louie’s next door a heckuva lot less, shall we say, sniffy? (I was at Louie’s for lunch a couple days earlier. There’s no way to sugar coat the smell. But, like I said, a couple of deep breaths and it was gone. The water wasn’t inviting, but the dogs won’t much care about that.
- Fort Zachary Taylor State Park: Tuesday, if you just had to do a beach day (and a lot of people did), Zach was the best choice. Strong currents from just the right wind direction had whisked all the sargassum from the near-shore waters back into the channel. The beaches were clean and the water almost so. It frequently works that way. Fort Zach is a state park and, unlike the city and county, which do clean their beaches, the state does not clean Zach’s beaches.
- South Beach: Dear Wee Donkey, South Beach is a disaster. Caught between a concrete pier with little water clearance and a seawall built decades ago, there’s no place for the sargassum to go and so it lodges between the two. The black decaying sargassum pile against the pier is thigh level, the small sandy beach is covered, the water is a sludge so thick that you can scoop it with a spoon. I do words for a living and I can’t find any to tell you how jaw-dropping awful South Beach was on Tuesday. I’d not make a summer reservation at the hotels that claim South Beach as their “private” space, nor would I take friends to the adjacent restaurants. Between the sargassum and the devolution of the once-vaunted public-private pocket park, South Beach is an embarrassment to Key West and should be a wake-up call to the city and to Michael Halpern, who promised to be a good steward of those public spaces. Clean up of the South Beach park must be a joint effort among the city, Halpern and other business entities that benefit from that space. Arguing over who is in charge or who is responsible is counter productive. Ignoring the mess that area was this week? Irresponsible.
Look, sargassum in the summer is normal, as any long-timer will tell you. Heck, even Christopher Columbus wrote about seeing it floating in the Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea (hence, the name). We need sargassum. The floating golden brown carpets of sea algae are safe nurseries for fish and turtles. But, what we have now is not the Sargasso Sea variety with which we are familiar. Since 2011, the sargassum piling up on Caribbean beaches has come from a massive algae bloom off Brazil’s coast. The sheer volume makes clean-up impossible. And the same volume is suffocating the turtles and fish and putting the ocean’s oxygen levels at risk.
Every seaside beach in the Caribbean, western Mexico and into the Gulf of Mexico is swearing at this “new” sargassum — and helpless to do much about it. Even if taxpayers were to agree to fund massive, multi-times-per-day clean ups that trucked away sargassum on the sand, we’d not make a dent in what’s waiting in the water to wash ashore. We cannot pretend it isn’t happening. We cannot say a dismissive “there, there” to folks raising concerns.
These outsized algae blooms, in great measure a product of climate change and disastrous environmental disregard, eventually will kill our summer beach time. Locals already know to forego our beaches most summer days. One of these days, our visitors will, too.
Want to know more about Key West sargassum?
- University of South Florida
- 2022: How sargassum is affecting the Caribbean
- Rockport Analytics 2020 executive summary on Monroe County sargassum impact
- Marine expert Brian Lapointe, background and research
- July 2022 sargassum outlook
- 2019: OMG! Does Key West always stink like this?
- 2021: Everything you need to know about Key West sargassum
- 2022: Key West sargassum 2022: One of these days it’ll kill our summer beach time