CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Crabs dig it. Tourists, not so much.
Beachgoers covered their noses with towels Wednesday at Jetty Park, where thick globs of dark-brown, rancid gunk fouled the air and blanketed large swaths of beach.
Local 6 News partner Florida today says scientists suspect seasonal seaweed, with some seagrass, algae and mangrove propagules in the mix.
Canaveral Port Authority assures its ongoing, offshore dredging is not to blame.
"The seaweed on the beach is not related to the dredging project, but this occurrence has happened before with the tide bringing it onto the beach where it has settled," Rosalind Harvey, spokeswoman for the port said via email.
A vendor disposes of the seaweed at Brevard County landfill's yard waste section, Harvey said.
Jetty Park is cleaned manually for litter on a daily basis, she added. "The wrack, or Sargassum algae seaweed, line along the beach typically is not removed. However, this season, the tide brought it so that it accumulated along the south jetty in such large quantities that it is problematic for both marine life and beachgoers."
A few weeks ago, the port obtained a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to clean the seaweed from Jetty Park. A contractor cleared and disposed three large commercial roll-off dumpsters full of seaweed, Harvey said, and the port is preparing another cleanup Thursday.
According to the DEP permit, the port can mechanically clean the beach during sea turtle nesting season (March 1 to Oct. 31), but only during daylight hours and seaward of the average high tide line, along the debris line and areas seaward of the debris line.
The port also must survey daily for sea turtle nests before the beach cleaning and avoid damaging nests. They can remove material by hand when close to the nests.
Similar seaweed surges happened last fall.
Seasonal winds and currents drive the weed buildups.
Biologists say the vegetation is beneficial to the beach because it provides food for birds, crabs and other wildlife and habitat for hiding. So raking the stuff off the beach can be controversial, often pitting tourism against conservation interests.
In October, massive amounts of open-ocean algae — called Sargassum — annoyed anglers all along the eastern United States. For months, the weed nagged fishermen from the Caribbean to Massachusetts, forcing them out of certain areas after they kept reeling in clumps of the stuff. Huge Sargassum blooms hit the east coast of Barbados and Puerto Rico as well, blanketing coastal waters and beaches.
Some scientists likened that seaweed surge to a similar widespread Sargassum bloom that harmed fisheries and tourism in the Caribbean in 2011. Biologists have yet to pin down causes, or whether the seaweed onslaughts are just normal cycles.
Much of the seaweed originates in the Gulf of Mexico, biologists say.
Sargassum is a constant presence in the Atlantic, so much so that a large swath of the North Atlantic is known as the Sargasso Sea. Experts say sustained winds, combined with seasonal shifts in the Gulf Stream, usually are responsible for sudden abundances on local beaches.
Most of the beach's wrack line is Sargassum, which mostly drifts in long lines near the Gulf Stream and provides vital food for young sea turtles. On the beach, the plant serves as fodder for crabs, beetles and other small creatures, which, in turn, are food for shorebirds.
The wrack line also is important for collecting wind-blown sand and encouraging plants, which help hold dunes in place to protect property.
Local governments generally rake beaches for litter, avoiding the wrack line.