Lee Hefty, Director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), described sargassum, a naturally occurring, free-floating seaweed that grows in open water, as “a critically important resource” that protects marine life from predators including endangered baby turtles that nest here and then head out to sea. But, “when it’s near shore in an overabundance, too much of any good thing can be problematic.” Those same baby turtles could get trapped in the seaweed and never make it back to the ocean.
The current problem dates back to around 2011, he said, when the sargassum began accumulating off the coast of Brazil. Scientists believe it may start with Saharan dust blowing in Africa which then makes its way across the ocean to the coast of Brazil mixng with runoff of nutrients from the Amazon River in South America then up into the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico. Add to that the nutrients from farmland here running out into the water and warmer water temperatures and you have what George Buckley of the Harvard Extension Schools calls “a great stew of nutrients” leading to “these phenomenal blooms of sargassum like they’ve never seen before.” [Watch Buckley explain the sargassum problem in this video.]
Hefty noted that while some countries are removing the seaweed out in the open water before it gets to shore, regulations here make it challenging especially with the endangered sea turtles that could get scooped up. With a prediction of “another bumper crop year of sargassum growing out there,” Hefty said, “we’re going to have to use an adaptive management approach going forward.” Specifically, he said, “How do we maintain a quality of life for our residents when we have change in the environment?”
Miami-Dade County Parks Director Maria Nardi whose department is responsible for cleaning 15 miles of beaches compared the responses in various jurisdictions and presented options for addressing the issue.
Currently, there are three main strategies for managing seaweed:
- Leave it on the beach to naturally decay which is State park policy;
- blading or cutting it and turning the seaweed at the shoreline which is what happens in Miami Beach; and
- partial removal of the seaweed to a remote location which Fort Lauderdale is doing.
Nardi presented three options going forward though, she warned, “These are very industrial options” involving heavy equipment and noise for extended hours and restricted beach access in certain places.
The first option would be to continue the current strategy of 100% blading which costs the County $4.4 million for the entire 15 miles of beach.
Option 2 would involve a combination of blading and removal at an estimated cost of $35 million for the first year with a recurring cost of $21.2 million per year for all 15 miles of County beach. For five months, crews would blade daily. For six months, there would be removal daily and, for extreme conditions, during one month the strategy would be to blade and remove the seaweed daily. She said this strategy would remove 220 containers of seaweed a day, 8,800 cubic yards or the equivalent of a football field filled five feet high. It would require 440 truck trips daily and multiple staging areas along the beach, restricting beach access. Hours of operation would go from 4 hours to do the blading to 8-12 hours of work time.
The last option she presented is for complete removal daily at a cost of $45 million per year. The amount removed would double to 440 containers a day or the equivalent of one football field filled 10 feet high with seaweed (17,600 cubic yards). Truck trips would also double to 880 a day.
As Miami Beach Commissioners searched for other options, questions arose about floating barriers. Hefty acknowledged that other areas around the world are using them to minimize what comes onto the shoreline but said U.S. regulations protecting endangered species again present a challenge and would have to go through permitting processes. He also questioned the feasibility of using floating barriers in the open ocean. They are most effective, he said, in small cove-like areas.
As to picking the seaweed up in the water before it gets to shore, he again raised the regulatory issues and asked “How do you stop from picking up wildlife if you’re trying to collect this habitat?”
The other challenge is what to do with the large amounts of seaweed collected. One option, he said, is to use it to enhance the dune system to further stabilize the beach and protect the uplands from storm surge.
“Because this is an emerging problem, I don’t know that anybody has spent a lot of time figuring out what to do with it,” Hefty said. “Now that this has become such a problem, now people will be thinking about it. You know how capitalism is. Somebody will find a way.”
Asked about its use as fertilizer, Hefty said it would have to be processed to remove the salt so that it could be used agriculturally. “In theory, it can be processed. I don’t know what it would take.”
He did note there may be an opportunity later this year or early in 2020 as part of an Army Corps of Engineers project to consider ways to address the hotspot that has emerged around the breakwater at 29th Street. While it has been successful at minimizing erosion in the area, he said, “It tends to be vulnerable to accumulations of seaweed. What we need to do is… try to minimize its vulnerability.” Changing the contour of it may be one way to do that. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins said she has asked Congresswoman Donna Shalala to speak with the Army Corps to see if there is a way to accelerate the project.
Overall, Hefty said, “If conditions in our environment are changing then we, as resource managers and as public servants, we need to figure out new ways to meet those challenges.”
Nardi said next steps are to continue the multi-jurisdictional approach to identify hotspots and priorities among all of the County beaches, the strategies for dealing with the problem, as well as to identify potential funding sources for the immediate and long-term options. All of it, she noted, needed to go through the County legislative process.
“We appreciate this as a beginning of a dialogue… l think it needs to be part of an immediate ongoing dialogue,” Nardi said.
While no one was particularly happy with the options, the greatest frustration was with the perceived lack of answers from the State Health Department. Dr. Samir Elmir repeatedly stated that while the decaying seaweed “can produce hydrogen sulfide in very low levels,” they are "not considered a public health threat.” The seaweed does harbor marine life such as jellyfish and bacteria so he advised people to “be careful about handling and contacting the material especially if they have open wounds or skin allergies.”
Pressed for answers on what was causing blisters and other symptoms reported by residents, he reiterated that the smell is not considered a health threat. However, he said, “The recommendation from the Health Department, if you experience some type of physical symptoms from headache to irritation to the eyes or throat or nose and the smell on the beach is very strong, stay away from it and if you have upper respiratory…” At that point, he was interrupted by the audience, not happy with the answer.
Elmir repeated that sargassum itself is not an issue but “the organisms they harbor, they refuge, may cause these type of health conditions.”
Higgins pressed for more clarity on what “low levels” of hydrogen sulfide mean and more information, in general. “I think the State Health Department can do a better job for us as you’ve done on the blue green algae and the red tide,” she said.
When it was time for the public to weigh in, one resident urged looking at the issue from a perspective of devalued properties and the impact to the quality of life. “The economic impact that it has has to be taken into account and not just the environmental and financial constraints that the agencies have,” he said.
Lauren Lipcon, a resident who lives oceanfront on Collins Avenue said, “Not only can we not go into the water or even sit down on the beach, but when I open my balcony door, I’m flooded with what you might say is just a smell, but it’s not just a smell. It’s actually making us sick.”
Speaking of the Health Department warnings, she asked, “How am I supposed to get away from the area if I live there? That’s my backyard. You’re basically telling us to leave our homes and that we should evacuate.”
Anamarie Ferreira de Melo, president of the Mid Beach Neighborhood Association, asked the public officials to “put health and safety at the forefront of this conversation” relaying cases of children who have had respiratory issues flare up and other reactions including blisters.”
“This city has shown great leadership, creativity, and resolve in being able to address issues as flooding streets, the seawall, Spring Break. I mean it goes on and on,” she said. “When we address something, we do it and we do it with a singular focus, and we get action and we get it done, and I don’t understand why we’re delaying with this, but this is a true safety and health issue and I just hope that you can make it a priority to resolve.”
Oscar Vasquez, a Club Atlantis resident, warned of the effect of social media posts about the seaweed on the City’s economy. Club Atlantis is close to the hotspot near the breakwater. “Most hotels and travelling blogs are flagging Miami Beach, at least our stretch of Miami Beach, as a beach to avoid and this should be concerning for everybody because it’s gonna take years to overcome that and the longer it lasts, the more visitors go away with that impression.”
Former Commissioner, and now Commission candidate, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez recounted one example. “It’s so bad a friend of mine was staying at the Edition and she had to leave the hotel. She said the smell just permeates the hallways,” Rosen Gonzalez said.
Wendy Kallergis, President and CEO of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said she didn’t have the answers but that the City, County, and State officials looking to solve the problem had their backing. “We want you to know that we can help… regarding advocating and educating hoteliers and visitors,” she said. “We appreciate your attention to this issue and just count on our support."
Former Miami-Dade County Mayor, and candidate for the seat again, Alex Penelas suggested a pilot program with a hybrid approach. “We’re looking at this as just one or two strategies for all 15 miles. Perhaps we need different strategies in different areas depending on the severity of the problems,” he said. “The jetties at 29th Street in particular, I think, would warrant an immediate collection and removal process. There are other areas where, perhaps, you could utilize the barriers and yet there may be other areas where blading would suffice.”
As to funding, Penelas suggested looking for emergency funding from the County's budget in August and September, the last two months of the fiscal year, and some money from next year’s budget for another two months to string together a four month pilot.
Committee Chair Micky Steinberg agreed there were long- and short-term solutions but said, “We need to start addressing this… we need to get this proactively taken care of and we need to fix the quality of life of not just our residents but everybody who uses the beach.”
Though the responsibility is mostly on the County, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales said, “We’re prepared to cooperate and work closely in whatever capacity we can. At the end of the day… even though it’s mostly the County’s jurisdiction, these are our residents and visitors as well and we want to come up with a plan, if we can.” He agreed looking at the jetty at 29th Street is an important effort, though not an immediate solution, and he thought a pilot program that could include removal or other strategies was something worth exploring with the County.
Commissioner Michael Góngora pressed Nardi for answers on when the County would commit to a pilot and if they planned to pay for it. She responded she couldn’t make that commitment but that she would “take this back and vet it through the process” reiterating the solution needed to include all beachfront municipalities as well as go through the County Commission.
“When can we expect a response?” Góngora asked. “Be more specific… We can’t leave this meeting with some kind of vague ‘We’re going to take this back and report back to you another day.’”
Nardi said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez was out of the country on airport business but that she would brief him and give the City a response within two weeks.
“Rest assured this is very important for the County,” she said.
Góngora also asked for follow up on the health questions noting that many “weren’t really answered.”
Nardi responded, “We heard loud and clear there needs to be better monitoring. There needs to be more consistent data in terms of what exactly are the measures out there in terms of the concern of water quality, air quality, all of those different things. We heard you loud and clear.”
Commissioner Joy Malakoff continued the hard press. “The beach is vital. It’s part of who Miami Beach is, what it is to our visitors. We are a major donor to the County,” she said, "because the beaches attract so many visitors who stay at our hotels and spend money here. It’s urgent that this becomes number one, not something put down at the end of a pile of items to take care of.”
“This is a really urgent problem,” Commissioner Mark Samuelian said. “We need short-term solutions implemented quickly.”
“I think the health issues are critical,” he continued. “I’m going to be looking for answers sooner rather than later… I think this item needs to stay front and center on our agenda and we need to advance with urgency.
Higgins also addressed the health issues and the lack of answers. “As I’ve expressed, the Health Department’s response got no better from last week to this week’s so it better be better next week.” She urged Nardi to find someone “that explains the questions more clearly so that we’re getting answers residents need rather than Health Department words and that has to be handled quick.”
Ultimately, the Committee recommended the City administration work with the County to find immediate funding for a pilot project in the area of the breakwater at 29th Street and to report back to the Commission during Wednesday’s meeting. They also asked to include further information on the potential health risks.
To the residents who came out to express their concerns, Góngora said, “This issue is very important to us and we assure you we’re going to stay on top of it until we get this fixed.”
Full video of the discussion is here.
Photo courtesy Lauren Lipcon