August 14, 2019

Contributed
Massive blooms of sargassum algae have littered shores of the Florida Keys and elsewhere this summer, creating cleanup challenges for coastal counties and municipalities. Islamorada is mulling options for dealing with the impacts.

Contributed Massive blooms of sargassum algae have littered shores of the Florida Keys and elsewhere this summer, creating cleanup challenges for coastal counties and municipalities. Islamorada is mulling options for dealing with the impacts.

ISLAMORADA — Sargassum washing up on Florida Keys shorelines shows no signs of abating, say exasperated residents and officials in Islamorada.

“We need to try to get something done locally,” Mayor Deb Gillis said at the Islamorada Village Council meeting Aug. 8. “Those are turtle beaches and we have to protect them.”

Sargassum, a macro algae that in normal quantities provides essential protection for oceanic creatures, has blossomed into massive fields of brown that wash ashore and often do not leave.

Global warming and excess nutrients poured into ocean waters have been cited by marine scientists as likely causes of the unwanted growth.

“Everybody on the ocean is feeling this,” Village Manager Seth Lawless said.

“A puree of sargassum a foot thick,” Robert Moser described conditions on a Lower Matecumbe Key beach. “It’s mushy stuff that becomes part of the beach. You can’t swim out from the beach, because it’s not pleasant to be in that.”

Blankets of sargassum block sunlight, harming seagrass and corals, Moser said.

“What used to be a seagrass flat is turning into sand,” he said. “It’s no longer a viable habitat.”

“It’s a statewide issue and an international issue,” Village Attorney Roget Bryan said. “It’s probably going to continue for the next year or two.”

Lawless said other Florida municipalities have brought in heavy equipment to remove the beached sargassum after scouting and marking turtle nests with flags to avoid damage to the protected species.

“We’re working on that as a pilot project,” he said.

The rotten egg-like odor of decaying sargassum could discourage Keys tourists and slow real-estate sales, speakers noted.

Florida Bay bucks

At the urging of Upper Keys fishing guides, Islamorada council members agreed to petition Everglades National Park managers to amend new rules for charter customers in Florida Bay park waters.

“It’s not so much the fee but the anger of the customers,” Councilman Jim Mooney said of reports from fishing guides.

In January, Everglades National Park imposed rules that require an entry pass for using park waters of the bay. A $55 annual pass for recreational boaters entering from the Keys covers everyone on board. A weeklong boat pass of $30 also is available.

However, professional fishing guides who already pay an $850 for an annual Commercial Use Authorization permit must ask their clients to buy a $15 weekly pass online.

In areas of the Upper Keys, park waters “are literally about 500 yards from shore. … It’s right there on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Mooney said. “There are five million entry points back there, but if [park rangers] stop you, you better have” an entry pass.

“Doing it per person really is asinine,” Councilman Ken Davis agreed.

Vice Mayor Mike Forster said the entry cost for charter boat clients “has to be a more friendly fee [like] a boat fee.”

“The fee is going to happen, but the way they do it should change,” Forster said. Guides “are worried customers won’t come back.”

The board asked the village attorney to draft a letter for submission to park managers.

kwadlow@keysnews.com