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Texas beaches awash in seaweed

GALVESTON, Texas -- The crowds of beachgoers flocking to the Texas coast this summer are encountering another feature along with sand, surf and sun.

Seaweed.Heaps of it. Broad, thick layers of it that bathers in some areas even have to wade through to get to the water.

For reasons that even the experts haven't determined, an unusually large influx of the brown, stringy algae has inundated many of the state's coastal areas in recent weeks.

The onslaught of clingy, floating seaweed is the worst since 1989, when huge sheets of the stuff, pushed by Gulf of Mexico currents, clogged Texas barrier island beaches for more than two months.

Scientists who study seaweed and other marine life know no more now than they did a decade ago about why the floating plants come in huge quantities some years and in small amounts other years, Texas A&M University-Galveston marine biologist Bill Wardle said this week.

"Unfortunately, there's no one that I know of that's really taking an active research interest in it," Wardle said. "It only becomes a problem every 10 years or so, so we're not that concerned about it."

On Galveston Island recently, beach managers first attempted to clear the seaweed away from the surf line every day so it wouldn't interfere with tourists' enjoyment of the shore. But by early this month, they decided to just pile the stuff along the surf line in hopes that the resulting berm would keep newly arriving seaweed from covering up all the sandy areas.

"Our cleaning crews have been working extended hours in a consistent effort to clear the seaweed and debris from the beaches but haven't been able to make a real impact," said Lou Muller, executive director of the Galveston Park Board of Trustees, when he announced an end to the removal efforts. "Once the seaweed stops washing in, we can either add it to the dunes for natural beach nourishment or clear it away."

People concerned about erosion along the coast maintain that the seaweed helps hold precious sand on the beaches.

At Mustang Island State Park near Port Aransas, managers have let nature take its course since the seaweed began building up, said park employee Mike Felts.

"It's a natural process," he said.

While the seaweed may be unpleasant for humans once it starts decaying and smelling, there's an up side for shore creatures.

"The seaweed has a number of species of critters that are indigenous to it, such as crabs, shrimp, eels and fish," Felts said. "There are birds and other critters that feed on those."

The seaweed travels a couple thousand miles before it hits Texas shores.

It starts its journey in the Sargasso Sea, a calm part of the mid-Atlantic Ocean defined by intercontinental currents. Those who have sailed through the area report spectacular expanses of seaweed, which shelters sea turtles and large fish that feed off crabs, snails, shrimp and other organisms.

As in 1989, Wardle said, the seaweed that has piled up on Texas beaches comprises two species: "natans" and "fluitans."

Most of the world's 40-or-so species of seaweed -- sargassum is the family name -- attach to rocks and stay put, he said. "Natans" and "fluitans" are two species that wander for some reason.

"Natans" has a narrower, more serrated leaf than "fluitans." It also has rounded air bladders -- the countless, tiny, balloonlike things that keep the algae afloat.

Just why the seaweed came to Texas is anybody's guess, but most scientists theorize that its arrival has to do with changes in ocean currents.