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Council starts red drift algae pilot program

By Staff | Sep 18, 2019

James Evans

The Sanibel City Council initiated a program to collect red drift algae from offshore waters.

Natural Resources Director James Evans said Hurricane Dorian produced very strong north winds. Officials believe the storm ripped algae from the structures to which is attached offshore and deposited it on Sanibel beaches.

“This isn’t just a Sanibel issue. We are seeing algae on the beach from Sanibel all the way down to Collier County and a number of communities are actively removing it from their beaches,” he said.

On Sanibel, was is moderate to heavy drift algae on its gulf beaches from Beach Access One on West Gulf Drive to Lighthouse Beach Park. As of Monday, Sept. 9, there were significant deposits from West Wind to the Village of Sanibel, at Gulfside City Park down to Lighthouse Beach Park.

“It’s increasing from west to east, but if you look at our survey conducted by the drone yesterday afternoon there seems to be less algae on our surf zones. The algae is migrating from west to east,” Evans said.

The algae is producing a strong odor, not on the beach, but at the surf zone where it is said to have decomposing organisms.

“As it hits the surf zone it is producing that smell,” Evans said.

On Tarpon Bay Beach there were dead catfish found, 50 to 75 per mile, which Evans explained as a small fish kill that is related to low oxygen levels.

“Our department has been directed to contact a contractor, provided by a previous proposal, to remove some algae from the water,” he said. “The algae that is on the beach itself smells like the sea. The algae that is several feet thick in the surf zone, that is where the smell seems to come from.”

Evans said they have been directed by the city manager to mobilize the four day pilot study at Algiers Beach, or Lighthouse Beach Park.

The contractor would put a drift fence, or turbidity curtain along the beach at 2,000 linear feet at an angle.

“The algae that would move into that area would drift and they would put it on a conveyer and they would put it onto a truck and haul it away to a dumpster. You would be removing the algae from the surf zone. The idea is to figure out if this would actually work. So far there hasn’t been any work done to remove the algae from the surf zone. I don’t think it has ever been done,” Evans said.

The city has permits for the four day pilot program.

There was many audience members that spoke during public comment, which included members of Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.

“The proposed project will have several harmful effects on our resident and migratory wildlife that use and depend on our beach for survival. The red drift algae that we are seeing on our beach is a really important part of our ecosystem, it provides beneficial habitat for a wide variety of vulnerable and protected species,” Sea Turtle Biologist and Coastal Wildlife Director Kelly Sloan.

There were four main concerns – migratory shorebirds, resident shorebirds, sea turtle hatchlings and small tooth sawfish.

“Every year from August through October thousands of migratory shorebirds arrive on Sanibel after flying several thousand miles from their arctic nesting grounds. By the time they arrive on our beaches they are exhausted from their journey. Fortunately for them this drift algae provides an abundance of invertebrate such as worms and small insects. These are life sustaining food source for these birds, especially since these populations are declining worldwide.”

The snowy plover population was also addressed, especially since there is only one remaining chick at the Lighthouse, which is flightless. Without the algae it would significantly reduce his chance of survival into adulthood due to it providing forage and cover.

As far as sea turtle hatchlings, they are known to find safety in floating masses of seaweed, and may get caught in the turbidity curtain.

Sanibel Sea School Founder Dr. Bruce Neil said we tend to forget that we have a large migratory corridor that starts at the shore and goes seaward and it is called fish migration.

“We have giant amounts of wildlife going through our shallow waters and the concept of sticking something out into the water is probably not going to be beneficial to them,” he said. “We are not going to make it better.”

Evans said the drift fence would be essentially 2,000 feet long and only stick out into the water for 40 feet. He said it would be there for four days and it would have to be taken down every night.

“For four days of work it is $32,000. It is something we could gather important information,” he said.

Council member Jason Maughan said it is a pilot project that gives them an opportunity to learn and share that information with people.

“When we have an opportunity to learn we would be fools to pass up on it,” he said.

Council member Richard Johnson said he would strongly recommend they continue to engage with SCCF and anyone else in the scientific community.

“Education is powerful. Knowledge is power and sharing that knowledge is where we get benefits. We work hard with our partners and minimize those risks and continue forward with the pilot,” he said.

During the Sept. 9 council meeting Evans said with the permits in place they could start the project as early as the following day.