- Associated Press - Thursday, June 12, 2014

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - The tractors roll slowly past tourists stretched out on towels on Stewart Beach, scooping up seaweed with rakes as their low rumbling interrupts an otherwise quiet morning.

Beachgoers would periodically pick up their towels and hustle out of the way so clean-up crews could move stinking piles of the algae to the back of the beach.

About three-dozen workers have begun a daily fight to take control of the 2014 Galveston Seaweed Invasion.

The swarm of sargassum, as it’s known, continues unabated on beaches in this tourist haven as officials work around the clock to clear what they say is the most seaweed they have ever seen. After five hours of cleaning the crews know there are still miles of beach to go.

Jesse Ojeda, beach cleaning operations manager in Galveston, is charged with what he calls the “never-ending” task of coordinating and scheduling the machines that clear the sargassum.

“The consensus is the same - this is the worst we’ve ever seen,” Ojeda told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1kRa3mO ).

Robert Webster, one of the foremost experts on seaweed, does not dispute Ojeda’s assessment. The marine science research assistant at Texas A&M; University at Galveston said this year is the biggest onslaught of seaweed he has seen since beginning research in 2003.

For example, the beach by 61st Street was hit so hard by seaweed that the cleanup crew ran out of space to pile it by the seawall, Ojeda said. In a stopgap measure, the crew loaded the seaweed onto trucks and carted it to the usually empty East Beach.

A turtle monitor said she stood in seaweed up to her waist, checking the pile for marine life.

Webster said the problem isn’t unique to Galveston. Port Aransas, South Padre, Corpus Christi and other Texas coastal cities have been experiencing similar seaweed dumps, he said.

“I’m sure it’s destroyed a lot of budgets for a lot of coastal cities,” he said.

The cleanup budget for Galveston is set annually at $2.5 million.

Officials said the city would most likely surpass its budget this year. Galveston Park Board trustees decided to support the cleanup effort with additional money if the need arises.

A three-day seaweed ambush earlier in the spring caused the vegetation to pile up, prompting crews to bring out the heavy machinery - front-end loaders to move mounds of sargassum several feet high in places.

The mass of sargassum has forced the Park Board to temporarily abandon its policy of leaving seaweed where it washes ashore to trap sand and help fight wave erosion.

“There’s a fine line between balancing that environmental protection with economic development,” said Kelly de Schaun, executive director of the Galveston Island Park board of trustees.

People make faces when hit with the pungent odor of the sargassum piles, but de Schaun and other local officials said it’s important to remember that seaweed helps the environment: “I know we as humans don’t like the seaweed but it’s an ecosystem, and it’s a habitat.”

Small fish, plankton, shrimp and even seahorses often wash ashore with the seaweed. It’s not the seaweed that smells as it dries, but the dying organisms inside it, Ojeda said.

Seaweed provides a habitat for the endangered green turtles that often float to shore on rafts of seaweed, de Schaun said.

The benefits notwithstanding, tourists Roy and Juli Craft wrinkled their noses at the mention of the pesky algae.

“We’re not impressed with the seaweed,” Juli Craft said. “It’s kind of nasty.”

But the Lexington, Ohio, couple said their experience this year won’t prevent them from returning to Galveston. They said they were understanding of the ongoing cleaning efforts; while the seaweed may be annoying, it is a part of nature.

“At this point in time, I don’t think it’s hurting business,” said Johnny Smecca, whose Galveston Restaurant Group owns seven locations on the island. On Wednesday around lunchtime, the parking lot outside its Pap-pa’s Pizza was packed.

Beachgoers aren’t Galveston’s only customers, said Jason Ostermayer, general manager of Galveston’s Pelican Club.

People flock to the island to enjoy rides on Pleasure Pier, experience Moody Gardens or celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, said Ostermayer.

Near Gaido’s Seafood, seemingly undeterred by the seaweed, two women were relaxing in chairs by the beach.

“We try to make it at least once a year and seaweed is not gonna keep us away,” Nebraskan Sandy Joseph said.

Local officials have been closely monitoring the seaweed since May.

Sargassum is an algae that grows in the Sargasso Sea and eventually drifts into the Gulf, growing as it makes its journey.

Webster developed the Sargassum Early Advisory System, which uses satellites to warn Galveston officials of the coming seaweed.

But monitoring seaweed and cleaning it up when it arrives is only a temporary solution, de Schaun said.

“Instead of just pushing it back to the beach, what we ultimately need to do is find alternate uses for the seaweed,” she said.

Officials hope to use the seaweed to build sand dunes in a pilot program on East Beach to encourage dune grass to grow.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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