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Houston Matters

Galveston Researchers And The French Government Have A Question: What To Do About Sargassum?

The smelly seaweed disrupts tourism, but it may also reveal the effects climate change

Sargassum seaweed covers a Galveston beach.

In the summer of 2014 on the beach in Galveston, the sargassum seaweed dominated the landscape.

"It was a nuisance, it stunk. It drove tourists away," said Gil Rowe, a professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

The sargassum that showed up in Galveston has perplexed researchers ever since it left in 2014. Now, four years later, the sargassum mystery has brought scientists, a United Nations representative, and a special, French government attaché, all the way to Galveston, just to talk about the seaweed.

Tom Linton heads the Galveston research lab and was one of the organizers of the international meetup. He says this whole thing — it started with a simple question:

"Why did we in 2014 have sargassum on the Galveston beaches hip deep? In 2015 2016 2017, not a sprig of sargassum. Not enough for graduate students who had that is an integral part of the research to conduct their research,” Linton said. “So how do we get sargassum here?"

A sargassum is no good for beaches. It smells bad, it's unsightly, and it disrupts tourism, but sargassum also makes for good deep sea fishing, so some people want it out off the coast, where they can use it, but not smell it. Since different groups want more or less sargassum in different places, it's useful for researchers to understand how it moves and where it's going.

To figure out why sargassum wound up on the Galveston beach, Linton and his team pulled every copy of the Galveston Daily News from eighteen-forty-two until twenty-fourteen.

"So we started plotting it and it looked like there was a seven or eight year cycle to when it’s really heavy and when it’s really light,” Linton said. “2014 blew that out of the water. It didn’t fit. And nothing is fit since 2014."

But that's not the last anyone has seen of sargassum. Since 2014, the seaweed has shown up on beaches in the French Antilles, and on the African coast at mouth of the Congo River.

"So it's a real problem because the massive strandings of sargassum on the beach is a problem for tourism. It's also a problem for local activities, for the coastal sailors, also for the fishermen," said Frederic Menard, one of French researchers visiting Galveston to learn more about sargassum.

The fishermen he's talking about — those aren't people out deep sea fishing who like sargassum, they're fishermen who depend on other types of fish for their livelihoods. Sailors off the coast of Nigeria and other countries have come back with nets full of nothing but the seaweed.

The sargassum problem isn't just a smelly, tourism and food-supply threatening issue. There's a chance sargassum appearances are an indicator of something larger, something that has marine biologists like Tom Linton worried. The sargassum, he says:

"It is a freeloader. It rides the tide. It rides the currents — the Gulf Stream brings it in or doesn’t bring it in."

And what the Gulf Stream does, it turns out, is really important.

"You think of the effect of the Gulf Stream not only on the Gulf of Mexico but the Caribbean coast and when it goes back around England and Scotland and whatever it makes the temperature so that they can live there,” Linton said. “If it’s changing that needs to be found out and you get to use the sargassum as a marker."

So in addition to figuring out how to manage sargassum, knowing where and how the algae is moving can provide one look into the way the planet's climate is changing.

For the rest of us, it's just helpful to know when the beach smells bad.

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