As a record-breaking seaweed bloom approaches the coast of Florida, prompting concerns over the health of wildlife, the amount of nutrients discharged by wastewater operations, and climate change, curiosity is growing all around the world over what exactly this bloom is made of and what its long-term impact will be.
“If you haven’t heard of the great Atlantic sargassum belt, or even if you have, chances are high that you’ll see it pop into your news feed at least once this summer,” reported NPR. “After a decade of record-breaking blooms, 2023’s sargassum mass is again shaping up to cause headaches (literally and figuratively) for beachside towns and tourists.”
While sargassum creates a natural and beneficial habitat in the open ocean, this monstrous bloom has likely been fed to its dangerous size by excess nitrogen and phosphorus from human-generated wastewater. Throughout the U.S., toxic algal bloom is being promoted by this runoff, as well as warmer water temperatures resulting from climate change. Now spanning 5,500 miles and weighing some 10 million tons, this bloom threatens coral reefs and, if it hits Florida, can force the closure of tourist beaches, marinas, and fishing operations.
“It used to be that sargassum rafts were disparate, sporadic bodies, causing little disruption to beach-going,” according to NPR. “But scientists noticed a change in sargassum levels in 2011, when masses of the seaweed multiplied, gaining in density and size, becoming so big they were captured on satellite images.”
Naturally, with such a surge in sargassum approaching shores, some are wondering how the seaweed might be put to good use. That could mean looking back at a traditional use for the seaweed: For centuries, cultures around the world have eaten it.
“All parts of sargassums are edible, including the numerous crustaceans that make this seaweed their home,” per Foraging Texas. “Traditionally it is chopped up and cooked in many ways including boiled, steaming, and sauteeing in hot oil.”
With sargassum blooms steadily increasing as time passes, it seems that adapting to live with these inundations of seaweed may be the only option.
“[Florida researcher Brian] Barnes is hoping his team can get better at predicting sargassum beaching with precision, in large part because he doesn’t see this excessive bloom cycle ‘winding down anytime soon,’” NPR reported. “‘It’s only getting bigger and bigger each year,’ he said.”