Seaweed invasion poses challenges

[USA] Seaweed. In the middle of summer. On York’s beaches. Almost nothing else can cause the phone to ring off the hook more often in the office of Parks and Recreation Department director Mike Sullivan.

“The first lecture I get is how important beaches are to our economy,” said Sullivan. “I feel for them. Some people who call me are here for only a week, and it ends up to be a week when there’s seaweed on Long Sands Beach. What I want to tell the public is, we know that. We care. We couldn’t believe more that the beaches are the lifeblood of the tourist industry, and we’re competing with every other Seacoast community for the tourist dollar.”

Sullivan’s comments came just as the town was getting over one seaweed invasion during July, and as it prepares for what it anticipates will be another one toward the end of August – when seaweed as thick as 1 to 3 feet covered Long Sands Beach last summer and has in previous summers, as well.

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Clusters of seaweed on Harbor Beach in York. Photo by Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline

“Typically one or two times a summer, we’re inundated,” he said. “I’m not sure what natural events can take place. In July, it happened after a big storm. The currents and the winds are all part of it.”

The problem is, seaweed can attract flies and some species, including an invasive variety from Japan that has been found in Maine beaches in recent years, can produce a rotten egg odor when dry. Yet removing seaweed involves state permitting, Sullivan said, as well as specialized equipment that York doesn’t currently have.

And because the seaweed problem does not appear to be going away, Sullivan has both a short-term and a long-term solution.

In the near term, he said the department will use the same method it has in previous years. Department of Public Works front-end loaders are used to essentially push the seaweed at low tide to the edge of the water and let the ocean take care of it naturally.

“The idea is to keep the seaweed from getting caught above high tide, keep it wet and hope that the winds and currents work with us to move it off shore,” he said. “It can take several days and tide cycles for this to be effective.”

He said in the past, they have moved beachgoers a section at a time during this process, and then the equipment moves to another section. It’s a labor intensive operation, taking DPW equipment away from other projects, and can also be inconvenient for sun bathers.

He said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will not allow the town to simply remove the seaweed without a permit, a time-consuming process that he said he will begin – but that will not be forthcoming during the existing summer season.

The longer-term solution is to create a “seaweed management plan” as part of a broader beach management plan, he said. This solution will likely involve using specialized equipment that the town does not currently have that will rake seaweed more effectively.

Currently the town contracts to rake the beaches, but the rake that is used is for soft sand, Sullivan said. All of Long Sands Beach is now in the intertidal zone due to sea level rise, he said. Waves hit the seawall, causing sand to be scoured away. This reduces the amount of soft sand left above the high tide mark, he said, and “it is likely that Long Beach will continue to erode in the future.”

In addition, he said, these higher tides are also depositing more seaweed on the beaches. “The ocean will dump whatever it wants,” he said.

He said the time has come to consider more sophisticated equipment for seaweed removal.

“If we had the right equipment we could have done a better job,” he said. “We did what we could with the equipment we had.”


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