A blob of sargassum seaweed thousands of miles long is approaching the Southeast United States and Gulf Coast.
It is expected to make landfall over the next several months, bringing with it the stench of rotten eggs and respiratory problems, much to the chagrin of Key West business owners, residents and visitors.
First discovered by Christopher Columbus during his voyage to the Americas, the macroalgae has continued to grow, causing problems for residents in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Florida and the Gulf Coast, according to a 2019 paper written by scientists at the University of South Florida.
This year’s belt is estimated to be more than 5,000 miles long.
The increase in the algae — which serves as a nursery for everything from tiny crabs and shrimp to larval dolphinfish, sailfish, marlin and bluefin tuna — is a boon for offshore anglers throughout the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
But it is beginning to cause problems for cities like Key West.
When cast ashore by southeasterly and south winds, the seaweed gathers in large mats and decomposes. As that natural process begins, hydrogen sulfide is released. The ensuing rotten-egg stench and associated respiratory problems are an unfortunate consequence.
The bloom has severely impacted businesses along the south side of Key West, including the Southernmost Cafe and South Beach Cafe at the foot of Duval Street. Homeowners along the south side of the island, as well as along the canals of Key Haven, have also complained.
Local attorney and businessman Michael Halpern is in the process of working with the City of Key West to erect barriers to help control and gather the floating algae as it washes onto shore at the base of Duval Street and the Southernmost House.
“We are hoping — at our expense — to install the barriers by April or May,” said Halpern. “Unfortunately, the seaweed has arrived earlier than we anticipated.”
Halpern said that although he hasn’t seen a drop in business, if it gets much worse, it will again be a problem.
At a recent Key West City Commission meeting, employees from the adjacent Southernmost Beach Cafe spoke to commissioners about the impacts caused by the seaweed groundings. Several said they had trouble breathing and suffered lasting effects from inhaling the hydrogen sulfide gas.
Over the past decade, the floating mass has moved further south from its traditional position — the Sargasso Sea — midway between the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States and West Africa.
As the algae has shifted into warmer water, researchers believe its growth has been fueled by excess nutrients spilling into the Atlantic Ocean from the Amazon River Basin. Scientists also believe nutrients from the Mississippi and Congo rivers contribute to the growth explosion.
Glen Boe and Associates, a structural engineering firm based in Marathon, is designing the barriers.
The city’s Planning Department approved plans for the barriers last year, but Halpern and others interested in building them must seek permitting from applicable state and federal agencies.
Halpern said he is still determining the cost of the barriers but hopes that the cleanup effort, once the floating booms collect seaweed and other marine debris, will be a joint effort between business and the City of Key West.
Mayor Teri Johnston agreed.
“We are looking at ways to increase our beach cleanup efforts regarding sargassum,” said Johnston. “Hopefully, we can prevent this from continuing to be a nuisance for residents, visitors and business owners alike.”
The onslaught of the noxious yellow algae is expected to continue into October. The Florida Department of Health has a few suggestions for those that might be headed to the beach.
Officials suggest always supervising children while at the beach and not touching or swimming near seaweed to avoid stinging organisms that live in it. They recommend wearing gloves when handling the algae, if necessary. Those experiencing breathing issues after inhaling hydrogen sulfide should avoid the area, and those who live near the beach should close windows and doors. They also recommend seeking a physician or calling 911 if experiencing breathing difficulties.
Sargassum isn’t the only respiratory threat residents have to worry about from the ocean.
The DOH has also issued a red tide caution for the area surrounding Sawyer Key on the Gulf side of Cudjoe. A health caution is issued when the level of red tide — caused by microscopic diatomaceous algae called dinoflagellates — is low (more than 10,000 but less than 100,000 cells per liter.)
The particular algae that cause red tide is Karenia brevis (K. brevis.) Typically formed offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, red tide forms commonly appears in late summer or early fall and is carried into coastal waters by winds and currents.
Once inshore, these opportunistic organisms use nearshore nutrient sources to fuel their growth. Blooms typically last into winter or spring but, in some cases, can endure for more than one year.
The DOH also has precautions for residents related to red tide.
They suggest looking for informational signage posted at most beaches and staying away from the water. Those with chronic respiratory problems should be especially cautious and stay away.
If caught live and healthy, finfish are safe to eat as long as they are filleted and the guts are discarded. Rinse fillets with tap or bottled water.
They also recommend avoiding harvesting or eating molluscan shellfish or distressed or dead fish from a red tide location. If you or your pets have come in contact with red tide, they recommend washing your skin, clothing and pets with soap and fresh water as soon as possible.
To report fish kills, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute via the FWC Reporter App, call 1-800-636-0511, or report online at https://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/health/fish-kills-hotline/.
The DOH also recommends people report symptoms from exposure to a harmful algal bloom or any aquatic toxin to the Florida Poison Information Center at 1-800-222-1222.
The National Park Service is seeking the public’s input on an environmental assessment for a series of important repairs to one of the largest brick structures in the western hemisphere, Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
The National Park Service announced earlier this month the release of the environmental assessment for repairs to the brick, Civil War-era fort, which includes repairs to counterscarp and dredging of the moat at Dry Tortugas National Park, according to Allyson Gant, spokeswoman for the Dry Tortugas and the Everglades national parks.
The counterscarp is the moat wall surrounding Fort Jefferson. The environmental assessment is available for review and comment through April 10 on the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment website at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/drto.
The purpose of the project is to repair the sections of the Fort Jefferson counterscarp damaged by hurricanes Irma in 2017 and Ian in 2022 and remove sand deposits that accumulated from these hurricanes within the moat and around the finger piers. The proposed repairs and dredging are supported by construction funds allocated for national park units impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Hurricane Ian was a Category 3 storm when the eye passed over the Dry Tortugas at 10 p.m. Sept. 27, 2022, packing sustained winds of 120 mph, according to Jon Rizzo, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West.
Hurricane Ian severely damaged docks in front of the fort. There was some damage to the moat wall and minor damage to the top two tiers of the old brick fort. There also were many downed trees inside the fort in the parade grounds, Dry Tortugas Park Manager Glenn Simpson said after Ian.
Fort Jefferson was still in need of repairs from Hurricane Irma in 2017 when it was battered again by Hurricane Ian last September. The moat wall runs along the entire backside of the historic Civil War-era fort, but was severely damaged in Hurricane Irma in to a point where people can no longer traverse the entire mote wall.
The environmental assessment for the repairs to the fort evaluates a no-action alternative and one action alternative, describes the environment that would be affected by the alternatives and assesses the environmental consequences of implementing the alternatives. Under the no-action alternative, the National Park Service would maintain the existing conditions at Fort Jefferson, according to Gant.
Under the preferred alternative, impacts from the hurricanes would be addressed by identifying, removing and relocating endangered corals and other significant benthic organisms prior to the commencement of repairs, repairing, strengthening and protecting the compromised sections of the Fort Jefferson counterscarp, removing sand and silt material at two locations in the moat surrounding the fort and the finger slips at the Garden Key waterfront, and placing the sand and silt material in appropriate locations within and adjacent to the fort, according to the National Park Service.
Counterscarp repair would consist of rebuilding approximately 60 feet of the western face of the counterscarp that is currently collapsed and replacement of approximately 46 feet of missing cement walkway along the northwest face of the counterscarp, according to Gant. In addition, accumulated sand and silt material within two areas of the moat from the 2017 hurricane season would be removed by dredging.
In addition to dredging in the moat, the finger pier slips at the Garden Key waterfront would be dredged to restore water depth for park and recreational vessels, Gant said.
The project itself is expected to take about 10 months, including mobilization, Gant said. The coral relocation and prepping of the site would likely occur before the 10-month implementation period.
Fort Jefferson is one of the largest brick structures in the western hemisphere.
After the War of 1812, a group of forts from Maine to Texas provided defense for the United States of America. Fort Jefferson was built to protect the southern coastline of the United States and the lifeline of commerce to and from the Mississippi River. Fort Jefferson was planned to be the greatest of these.
Fort Jefferson itself is a six-sided building constructed of 16 million handmade red bricks. In 1825, a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to provide warning to sailors about the dangers of reefs and shoals surrounding the Dry Tortugas.
In 1908, the area was designated as a bird reserve and transferred to the Department of Agriculture. On Jan. 4, 1935, it was designated by President Franklin Roosevelt as Fort Jefferson National Monument, the first marine area to be so promoted. On Oct. 26, 1992, the monument was upgraded to national park status in a bill signed by President George W. Bush.
The fort once housed one of the most famous prisoners in U.S. history: Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned at the fort for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The public may comment on the repairs to the Fort Jefferson counterscarp and dredging environmental assessment during the review period, which ends April 10. The preferred method of providing comments is through the project website by clicking on the project title and then the “Open for Comment” tab.
Comments may also be submitted in writing to Dry Tortugas National Park, Attn: Superintendent, Fort Jefferson Counterscarp EA, 40001 State Road 9336 Homestead, FL 33034. Mailed comments should be postmarked no later than April 10.
For information about Dry Tortugas National Park, visit http://www.nps.gov/drto on the internet.
The U.S. Navy restricted all inbound and outbound traffic at its Key West installations Thursday, March 16, following a security breach at Trumbo Annex.
A service person drove past a security guard around 3:30 in the afternoon. Spokesperson Danette Baso-Silvers said the lockdown lasted for around an hour for Trumbo, Truman Annex and NAS Key West while base security assessed the threat.
The service person was located by base security and the Key West Police Department. They were not arrested, but spokesperson Dannette Baso-Silvers said the incident was still under investigation.
“Any violation of our security measures is taken very seriously, and we want to remind personnel to always follow proper security procedures,” she said.
— Ted Lund
The City of Key West has a new Housing and Community Development Program Manager.
Tina Burns hails from Lexington, Kentucky, and has a wealth of experience in affordable workforce housing rentals and development.
Since 2012, Burns has served as Executive Director of REACH Inc. (Resources Education Assistance Community Housing) in Lexington.
The non-profit is a consortium of 20 entities established in 1994 to help low- to moderate-income families and individuals become first-time homebuyers. REACH provides homebuyer education and housing counseling services to help clients prepare for owning a home and financial assistance with down payment and closing costs to make purchasing a home more affordable.
The group has helped more than 750 families and individuals become homeowners in Central Kentucky.
In 2006, REACH became a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO), which allows the agency to serve as a developer of affordable housing.
Burns brings extensive experience dealing with Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Administration.
“I believe Tina will be a perfect fit for us in the City of Key West with the wealth of experience she brings to the table,” said Mayor Teri Johnston. “We need somebody who can focus on affordable housing eight hours a day, but also go to Tallahassee and work through the issues we have with the Department of Economic Opportunity and other agencies to allow us to build more workforce housing.”
Johnston said Burns’ experience also dovetails perfectly with the city’s new focus on holding homeownership workshops for first-time buyers.
“Right now, from where I have come from to Key West, the crisis in housing differs so much because we have land in Kentucky, but not in Key West,” she said. “We hope to get some units available to workforce members and retain our current workers.”
One of Burns’ priorities is to address short-term versus long-term rentals.
“If we don’t have places for people to live, we don’t have workers, said Burns.
Burns said she also wants to focus on rehabilitating existing housing units and working with community partners such as AH Monroe on projects like the 3.2-acre The Lofts at Bahama Village.
Unlike previous Affordable Housing Director Demetria Simpson, who was fired by the city in November, Burns already has ties to the community.
Her husband, Jack Burns, is the Communications Supervisor for the Key West Police Department. He started his first day on the job as Hurricane Ian impacted the Lower Florida Keys.
“We are looking forward to becoming a part of the community, and there is plenty of work to be done,” she said.
Burns will start work on April 3, the same day as incoming City Manager Albert Childress.
Retiring Florida Department of Health-Monroe Adminstrator Bob Eadie will join News Director Joe Moore and Chuck Thomas to talk about his career in Key West and discuss what’s next for him.
Also on Monday’s Morning Magazine,
• Captain Jason Ingram, Commander, Coast Guard Sector Key West
• Brian Vest, Conch Republic Marine Army President
• George Garrett, Marathon City Manager
• Teri Johnston, Key West Mayor
• Paulette Sommers, FDOT spokeswoman
• Jim Mooney, State Representative
• Captain Dave Dipre, FWC
On Evening Edition, host Ron Saunders talks with Monroe County School Board member Mindy Conn