PANAMA CITY BEACH – One type of seasonal seaweed beaches littering Florida has now made its way to Panama City Beach.
According to Wil Spivey, director of beach safety for Panama City Beach Fire Rescue, local beachgoers are starting to see pockets of Sargassum seaweed along the city’s coast.
However, its concentration is not as high as in other areas of the Panhandle, including Okaloosa County, where officials reported earlier last week that algae had washed up in far greater quantities than the previous years.
“I would say there are pockets where it’s thicker, but I see it along our coast,” Spivey said. “I’m sure there are people who are more hesitant to get in the water with it. Some people seem to be, and some people don’t care. Obviously my crew and I’m in it.”
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Spivey leads a team of a dozen seasonal lifeguards and four full-time lifeguards who are responsible for protecting swimmers along the coast of Panama City Beach.
He noted that despite the appearance of the Sargassum seaweed, they continued their usual operations, which include daily morning workouts in the water and along the beach.
Although the brown and sometimes smelly algae – also known as June grass – can create an obstacle for those trying to enjoy the Gulf of Mexico, experts say it is a natural phenomenon which poses no known risk to human health.
It also serves as both a breeding ground and a feeding ground for many marine and coastal animals.
“There are all kinds of little creatures that live in the June grass, from little seahorses to fish, so it leads to some interesting sea life that you can observe,” Spivey said. “The Gulf is a very dynamic environment, so (if) the wind blows for a while and the waves come up, the (amounts) of seagrass and marine life fluctuate. … From the photos that I see, it seems more concentrated (in areas) west of us.”
Okaloosa County coastal resource manager Alex Fogg said the rise in sargassum seaweed in his area this year was caused by strong southerly winds that pushed the Gulf Loop Current, which originates in the Caribbean, higher. north than normal.
“It really is a natural thing,” Fogg said. “Sargassum can sometimes smell, and it may look unattractive, but there is no health concern.”
He also noted that Okaloosa County currently allows June grass to rot on its beaches and authorities have no plans to remove it. It’s different from what happens in Panama City Beach.
Lacee Rudd, spokesperson for Visit Panama City Beach, said that since seaweed often mixes with litter when washed ashore, “it gets picked up (on the sand) and disposed of when beaches are raked.”
The Panama City Beach Tourism Development Board has a contract for beach maintenance and waste collection with Coastal Parasail, which is an extension of Adventures At Sea, a boat rental service in the Panama City Beach area . The group maintains over 18 miles of beaches from St. Andrew State Park to Camp Helen State Park.
Coastal Parasail picks up litter in this area twice a day between March 5 and October 14. He also combs the beach twice a week from March 5 to May 22, three times a week from May 23 to September 10 and twice a week from September 11 to October 14.
“We maintain a vigorous beach sweeping program in Panama City Beach during our peak seasons,” Rudd wrote in an email. “The beaches are our #1 asset in the destination, so it’s important to keep (them) clean and pristine through beach maintenance.”