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Deep-water seaweed drifts ashore to Pinellas beaches

Welcome to Florida and its beaches, with white sand and warm breezes . . . and clumps of seaweed rotting in the sun.

With the Republican National Convention 10 days out, this is not exactly the first impression we wanted to make. But in recent weeks, beachgoers, fishermen and experts have reported unusually large clusters of seaweed dumped in patches between St. Pete Beach and at least as far north as Clearwater. It's squishy and slimy and doesn't smell good.

Some locals call the seaweed a fact of life. Experts call it sargassum or "gulfweed," a brown algae of a variety normally found in deeper water. Tropical Storm Debby might at least be partially responsible for pushing it inland.

Some cities are cleaning it up. Others are letting nature do the job.

Either way, it won't be washing out with the next tide.

Clearwater Beach has had thick bands pile up in recent weeks, prompting complaints from at least one resident. While city employees rake the beach daily, officials got a special permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to remove larger amounts of seaweed than usual, said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

On Thursday afternoon, northern stretches of the beach still had large amounts of seaweed on them. The most heavily visited portion of the beach around Pier 60 was relatively free of seaweed, however, with several beachgoers professing surprise that anyone had complained.

"I live up here, so I look out on the beach all the time," said Walt Chase, who lives in a residential building that abuts the sand north of Pier 60 on Mandalay Avenue. He said he had noticed no excess seaweed or bad smell.

Neither did Rick Falkenstein, co-owner of the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant on St. Pete Beach.

"The gulf sheds, like a dog," Falkenstein said. "It's nothing new and nothing to be concerned about."

It's a different story for Mark Hubbard, who runs a charter boat out of John's Pass Village. Since Debby hit in late June, he has seen beds of seaweed as far as 80 miles west of Pinellas County.

"It's been problematic for us," Hubbard said. "It clogs up all of our pumping systems. Every two to four hours, we have to clean out buckets and buckets of this stuff. It clogs up the toilets and the bait wells, so the bait fish die."

The seaweed has blanketed parts of the beach in Treasure Island, particularly where a sand berm created by Debby has trapped it.

"High tide doesn't wash it away, so it sits and decays," said Treasure Island spokesman Jeff Jensen.

Officials in Manatee County have seen unusually large amounts of seaweed washing ashore since Debby, according to newspaper accounts. Bob Weisberg, a University of South Florida physical oceanographer, saw the seaweed firsthand two weekends ago while sailing near Venice.

This sargassum is normally found in deep water, swirling between the Yucatan Peninsula and the Florida Straits, Weisberg said. Currents would not normally carry the seaweed across a shallow continental shelf that extends 100 miles offshore.

"It's a rare event," said Weisberg, an expert in the topography of the gulf and its currents. "It takes some other kind of rare event to make it happen."

Weisberg said that an eddy observed near the continental shelf in mid July could have caused the seaweed to drift inland. Or it could be the work of Debby weeks earlier.

Some tourists have complained, Jensen said. Others don't mind.

"They're still just happy it's not raining," said Hollyn Hale, who works the front desk at the Island Inn in Treasure Island.

Indian Rocks Beach City Manager Chuck Coward said sizable amounts of seaweed had piled up on the city's beaches after Debby, but much of it has been covered up as the beach was replenished in recent weeks. He said the city had not made any effort to dispose of the seaweed.

"We're not moving it," he said. "It's a naturally occurring item."

Jensen said crews in Treasure Island are removing that city's seaweed with rakes and shovels, not the tractor they normally use, in order to protect hatchling sea turtles.

Deep-water seaweed drifts ashore to Pinellas beaches 08/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 11:36pm]
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