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Sargassum 2024 | How many more environmental disasters do we face in the Keys?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

04/06/2024

Here’s a bit of good news: Spring break visitors to Key West and the Florida Keys dodged an early mashup of sargassum on our beaches. In fact, we’re likely to make it until the end of May before sargassum 2024 turns our near-shore waters into chocolate-pudding-style mush with a huge helping of rotting algae piled feet-high on the sand.

Right now our island edge looks like ads made by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. Clear water, sun sprinkles on the ripples, clean, sandy beaches and a few puffy clouds add dimension to the I-was-here-today photos we post for our friends on the mainland.

Make no mistake, though. Lurking off the horizon is a record-breaking sargassum bloom, one experts worry could be the worst we’ve seen. It’s out there floating our way. The same was true last year, but the stars aligned and an assortment of storms, winds and currents kept much of the sargassum, though not all, from beaching. That saved Key West and the Keys from a devastating 2023 summer season.

We’ve got a 50-50 shot this sargassum season 2024. That blob could fall victim to nature’s vagaries and be a non-issue — or a goodly portion of the 6.5 million tons of sargassum could overwhelm the Keys and our Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico neighbors.

Sargassum is a naturally occurring blanket of algae. It’s a nursery for turtles and fish and it’s very much a necessary part of the marine ecosystem. The first Western mention of sargassum was in 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed through the area we call the Sargasso Sea. For hundreds of years the sea, just off the east coast of the United States, was home for this environmental farmstead.

But by 2011 massive sargassum growth exploded south and west. Called the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, it extends from the west coast of Africa through the Atlantic and Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico. It drops as far south as Brazil.

Sargassum 2024
Even though 2023 sargassum beachings were far less than predicted, the beaches at Fort Zach in March 2023 were still piled high.

Sargassum 2024 | Why does Key West stink in the summer?

Free-floating sargassum is not inherently dangerous to humans. Swimming through it won’t hurt you, although you might experience some nibbles and minor stings from the wildlife within. In such huge quantities sargassum can cause oxygen depletion in the water, which isn’t good for baby fish and turtles. And it can make for headaches for boaters and anglers who get tangled in it.

When sargassum ends up piled waist-high on beaches it rots, releasing substantial amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s why Key West smells like rotten eggs most of the summer. The gas is particularly harmful to folks with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

There’s no way to get rid of decaying sargassum floating in near-shore waters. It has to wait for a change in winds or a storm to sweep it back to open waters. The only way to get rid of the massive piles along the beaches is to machine rake it and haul it away. Beach communities, including the Keys and Key West, spend millions of dollars in fruitless efforts to keep beaches visitor-friendly.

Some resort areas are experimenting with barriers, though with minor success. Things like barriers and seawalls do little more than keep a beach area clean while rerouting the sargassum downstream or next door.

Sargassum is no good as compost. High levels of arsenic and other heavy metals from excessive land-based fertilizer and nutrient runoff make dried sargassum hazardous to plants and likely to humans. Yes, there is experimental research to determine if the metals can be removed, but mass-market compost use is far in the future. For now, removal is into dump trucks for a long haul to some landfill.

We know the record-breaking sargassum is a result of climate change, warming waters, nutrient runoff, the destruction of the rainforests and assorted other human-based activities. What once was a normal summer headache has become an environmental and economic crisis, one we don’t want to talk about, much less change the things we’re doing that exacerbate it.

We live in one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. Our barrier reef is dead. Our coral restoration efforts are virtually powerless against the record-breaking ocean temperatures of last summer. The smalltooth sawfish, an endangered Keys native, are dying in record numbers and our marine life from grouper to stingrays is swimming in upside-down circles and no one knows why. Inexorable sea-level rise leaves once-dry neighborhoods flooded for days and often weeks.

The 2024 hurricane season, which begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30, is predicted to the the worst on record. Why? Climate change, warming ocean waters and rapid intensification. Even a lowly category one storm can knock out Key West for weeks. A category five or higher could wipe us off the map.

The Keys are a bellwether for looming global environmental and economic disaster. We cancel-culture those who raise the alarms and we silence those who point to human-caused climate change. Whether sargassum rots on Higgs and Smathers beaches this summer or not, I’m no longer inclined to think we might save the Keys ecosystem.

As I write this, it’s such a spectacular day that sitting on the porch and relishing the sheer gloriousness is all the restoration one needs. We can’t save the Keys, but we CAN revel in today’s gift. And, we can do those so-called little things that make a difference. Reef-safe sunscreen. Forgoing straws and plastic bags. Picking up the roadside trash on a morning walk. Every little bit sustains our island and gives it a chance to recover.

For additional reading:

https://www.usf.edu/marine-science/news/2023/study-identifies-nutrients-as-driver-of-the-great-atlantic-sargassum-belt.aspx

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sargassosea.html

https://optics.marine.usf.edu/projects/SaWS/pdf/Sargassum_outlook_2024_bulletin03_USF.pdf

https://optics.marine.usf.edu/projects/saws.html

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