US: Heaps of seaweed full of flesh-eating bacteria hit Florida beaches
A 5,000-mile-wide blob of murky seaweed slithered menacingly across the Atlantic before depositing itself upon the US coastline. It may have been one of Alfred Hitchcock's fantastical otherworldly stories.
However, now that massive clumps of the 13 million tonne sargassum belt known as the Great Atlantic are washing up on Florida beaches, scientists are warning of a real-life hazard posed by the heaps of rotting algae, notably high concentrations of the flesh-eating Vibrio bacteria hiding in the vegetation.
The disturbing discovery by marine scientists at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) gives the invasion of brown seaweed—which is already threatening to ruin the state's lucrative summer tourism season—a perilous new dimension. Coatings of decomposing goop emit a strong odour resembling that of rotting eggs.
Even more concerning, according to the experts, is how ocean pollution contributes to the growth of the bacteria, which, if ingested, can lead to illness and even death. As a result of the plastic debris's interaction with the bacteria and algae in the samples studied from the Atlantic's Caribbean and Sargasso Sea, a "perfect pathogen storm [with] implications for both marine life and public health" was created.
“Our lab work showed that these Vibrio are extremely aggressive and can seek out and stick to plastic within minutes,” Tracy Mincer, assistant professor of biology at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Harriet L Wilkes Honors College told the Guardian.
He said that the seaweed belt, which stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Africa, served as the ideal breeding habitat for "omnivorous" strains of bacteria that prey on both plant and animal life, as well as accompanying "microbial flora" that may include diseases with high pathogenic potential.
“We really want to make the public aware of these associated risks. In particular, caution should be exercised regarding the harvest and processing of sargassum biomass until the risks are explored more thoroughly,” he said.
Many people are concerned about this, including municipal workers tasked with cleaning up washed-up seaweed off Florida's beaches to make them more appealing to visitors, as well as groups of volunteers who care about the environment and fill garbage bags with the debris that has washed ashore.
“It’s very alarming in the first place to see it on the beaches, and alarming to see all the plastic that is entangled in it. And now even more than that, there’s harmful bacteria too. That’s so scary,” Sophie Ringel, founder of the non-profit Clean Miami Beach told the Guardian.
In order to minimise direct contact with the items they remove, recruits will be using protective measures including thick gloves, sanitisers, and long-handled grabbers for the group's beach cleaning on Saturday to commemorate World Ocean Day.