Blessing or curse?
Lots of it!
Just as surely as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, the sargassum seaweed returns to Texas beaches each spring. And Port Aransas is no exception.
Mustang Island shores have been hit especially hard this year, said Deputy City Manager Dave Parsons, who supervises the workers who toil each week at removing tons of the seaweed from the beach.
Port Aransas long has struggled with the question of how to handle the sargassum subject.
On one hand, many folks consider the seaweed to be unsightly, smelly and bad for tourism. And, as such, they argue, sargassum largely should be removed from the beach.
Others argue that the weed’s appearance on our shores each year simply is a natural phenomenon and that sargas- sum plays an important role in marine ecology.
But when it starts piling up, the city starts removing it with heavy equipment, partly because it hinders beachgoers’ access to the water, Parsons said. In addition, he said, concentrations of sargassum cause pools of seawater to become trapped, and the seaweed starts rotting in the stagnant water, producing odors.
“The high volumes have a much greater impact on the economy,” Parsons said. “It will drive people away.”
The city tracks movement of huge offshore beds of sargassum by periodically checking out a Web site run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The site, updated every five days, includes satellite images of the Gulf of Mexico. Floating sargassum can be seen as lightblue strips arcing across parts of the Gulf.
On a recent day, Parsons logged onto the site and saw an approximately 100-mile-long curving mass of sargassum, perhaps one mile wide, floating about 70 miles off Mustang Island. Prevailing winds appeared to be taking it toward Matagorda Island, which is mostly uninhabited.
The city uses heavy equipment to scoop up sargassum, then loads it into trucks that normally place the weed in one of several spots behind the sand dunes that line the beach.
The city has permits from the Texas General Land Office to put the seaweed in these specifically designated places. One area lies between Lantana Drive and Avenue G. Other areas are near Mile Marker 38 and in an area parallel with the 1100 block of South 11th Street.
The city last week began trying out a new kind of sargassum disposal called the “front notch” method, Parsons said. This means using heavy equipment to dig out part of a maintenance dune, spread the sand out near shore and then replace the sand with a mixture of sargassum and sand.
Created in the first place by front-end loaders and dump trucks, the maintenance dune is the row of dunes closest to the beach road. The sand originated largely from various high-tide events over the past few years.
The city is trying the front notch method to see how efficient it might be, compared to the practice of stacking the seaweed behind the dunes, Parsons said. The effort is taking place in a 130-foot-long area near Mile Marker 13.
Also new on the subject of sargassum collection: The Port Aransas City Council voted on April 21 to take over beach maintenance in I.B. Magee Beach Park, which extends from a point just south of Lantana Drive to the south jetty. That’s about eight-tenths of a mile of beach.
City officials believe they can keep the beach park more sargassum-free than the county, which had to drive heavy equipment repeatedly all the way from Corpus Christi to attack the seaweed.
The county will pay the city up to $129,000 a year to handle sargassum disposal and maintenance of the beach road, according to an agreement the two entities have worked out. Parsons said the city is planning to take up those responsibilities June 16.
While attention often is focused on the idea of getting rid of sargassum, people shouldn’t forget that the seaweed serves an important role in the environment, said Tony Amos, a research fellow at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and director of the ARK (Animal Rehabilitation Keep).
“When it’s offshore, it’s a major food source for sea turtles and other organisms, because there are so many other organisms associated with it,” Amos said.
It remains a significant part of the ecology after it washes up on shore.
“When it’s on the beach, it’s a food source for a myriad of shorebirds,” Amos said. “They eat whatever is associated with it, which could be as basic as flies.”
Shorebirds also consume tiny shrimp and crabs that live in sargassum.
Amos said workers manning the heavy equipment that scoops up sargassum should be careful not to create ridges of sand that could hinder sea turtles in their efforts to crawl up out of the water, dig nests on the beach and lay eggs.
All sea turtle species that swim off the Texas coast are on the federal government’s threatened or endangered species list. Wildlife officials have been working for decades to pump up sea turtle populations.