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22/03/21: Dirty beaches: Man and Mother Nature to blame

Pompano Beach – Mother Nature plays a major role in the cleanliness of coastal beaches. While beachgoers leave behind all manner of debris – from food containers to sharp objects – sea turtles and seaweed impact beach cleanups every day.

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In response to several letters to the editor complaining about the condition of the city’s north beach, The New Pelican made some queries.

First, we asked Pompano Beach Communications Director Sandra King about the debris photographed for us by residents.

King said that during turtle nesting season which began March 1, the beach raker cannot get onto the beach until scientists from Nova Southeastern University clear the area after marking turtle nests. This conservation effort delays the cleanups until around 9 a.m. By the time the beach raker gets to the north beach it can be as late as 11 a.m., so early morning beach walkers have to contend with what the sea, and humans, leave on the shore.

Russ Ketchem, the city’s director of solid waste, adds that in addition to a late arrival, the beach raker can only clean to the highwater mark because of environmental protection laws. “We cannot sanitize the upper portion of the beach due to potential turtle nests,” he said.

The city pays W. D. Thompson, the raking company, $18,000 a month to clean its three miles of beach daily. The raker buries the debris which at this time of year includes lots of seaweed.  

While residents complain that this is not efficient cleanup, Ketchem said it is the only practical one. Carting the seaweed and other refuse off the beach would cost more than $1,200 a day.

And the real downside to that? Seaweed and other sea borne debris returns to the shore every 12 hours with the changing tide.

Seaweed, or more properly, sargassum, is on the move from the Caribbean Sea this time of year. It will continue through the summer months and, according to predictions, may be especially heavy in 2021.

Sargassum is not usually toxic to man or marine life, but for residents and visitors who envision white, sandy beaches, it is a major disappointment. 

Ketchem said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection prefers that cities not rake the beaches at all and let nature take its course. The seaweed is necessary for dune growth and maintenance and well as being a habitat for young sea life and a food source for birds.

“The position to rake the beach or not to rake has been an ongoing discussion for many years,” Ketchem said. “Some cities have discontinued beach cleaning, Palm Beach comes to mind and I believe Boca Raton, at least for a while during the large seaweed blooms. However, beach communities depend on tourism dollars and visitors and part-time residents demand our beaches be as clean as possible.”

The seaweed invasion from the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, a two million square mile body of warm water, seems to have exploded recently. 

According to an Associated Press story, there are several possible reasons for this: warming ocean temperatures and changing currents and land-based pollutants including fertilizers and sewage that feed the blooms. A major contributor to the latter comes from the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America.

Dr. Brian Lapointe is a sargassum expert at Florida Atlantic University. Sargassum in normal amounts has been good for the Caribbean, he says, but severe influxes, like one that happened in 2011, cause fish kills, beach fouling, loss of tourism and coastal dead zones.

“This could be the new normal,” Dr. Lapointe is quoted as saying.

The shoreline in Palm Beach County was heavily invaded by sargassum in 2019. Beachgoers had to wade through piles of it to get to the water and are pictured in beach chairs surrounded by the brown algae.

The impact here was not as severe and beaches have never been closed because of the sargassum.

But, Ketchem says, as winds pick up, increasing wave action, seaweed is likely to increase, maybe dramatically.

Ketchem takes Dr. Lepointe’s view of the situation seriously. “He is not alone. Many scientists have studied the data and it appears they may be correct.”

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