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The Gift of Sargassum

I have had a plethora of "ask sandy" letters recently focusing on a single topic: We are talking major weed here. Not the kind you smoke or the kind you pull from your flower beds but the kind that dominates city council meetings and transforms our lovely beach into a challenging obstacle course. As I write this, the overabundance of seaweed - or, more precisely - Sargassum - blanketing the beaches of South Padre Island seems to have abated, though the city's handling of the problem is still inspiring some.... er, spirited discussion.

As a daily beach walker (I have dogs, I have no choice) I am interested in whatever the tides are throwing up on the beach on any given day. Sometimes its jellyfish, or tar - yuck. Sometimes its little mountains of foam or white things that look like bean sprouts. One noteworthy day it was limes. (I kid you not - I harvested all I could carry in my T-shirt, took them home and made margaritas with them. No additional salt needed.)

I won't pretend I know what causes the foam, where the nasty tar comes from or why jillions of jellyfish sometimes suddenly decide to commit mass suicide on our beaches -- though I probably could come up with multiple interesting theories for each. But thanks to the internet, I was able to discover quite a bit of information about the Sargassum that has been rolling in with the tides.

If you have ever taken a close look at the stuff, you will have noticed the little round gas-filled bladders that give it its name - "sargaco" is the Portuguese word for grapes. Most of these weeds come from the Sargasso Sea which is located in the North Atlantic but Sargassum - like Winter Texans - really likes the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. According to one of the articles I read, the Gulf of Mexico is second only to the Sargasso Sea in the quantity of Sargassum weed.

Now here is a fascinating fact to throw out at the next Merry Martini bash: Sargassum reproduces asexually without seeds. That means that it just floats around all day making more of itself. And when wave action breaks off a piece, that piece just floats around making more of itself as well. One source I looked at reckoned there is about 7 million tons of the stuff floating around the planet, and anyone who has been here at all over the last month - and especially the mighty warriors from the public works department who have been doing battle with it - already knows that a whole bunch of those tons ended up on our beaches recently.

The weed is a floating hotel to jillions of tiny critters, many of which have cleverly evolved to look a lot like the weed itself. When the stuff washes up on the beach, all those critters die and start to decompose. This does not look or smell pretty, causing offense to tourists and much hand wringing amongst local business owners who in turn command city workers to bring out the heavy artillery. I find it interesting that many of the same people who want to declare war on the beach erosion problem are the very same people who want to declare war on Sargassum, which according to everything I have read is a fine and natural way to protect and build up beaches. (I think that the first thing to be lost when the handwringing thing starts is one's sense of irony. )

But what do I know? I am but a humble sand sculptor with a fast internet connection and an inquisitive mind. I do know one thing: when the Sargassum and its critters decompose - a process that takes less time than one might imagine - it turns the sand black with some lovely silty stuff that smells kinda funny, yes but allows me and my fellow sculptors to build very large, marbled structures that can keep us entertained for hours. The weed enhances the sand while shoring up eroding beaches and it's all free!

Anyway, the Sargassum problem may have resolved itself -- for now. But there can be no doubt that it will rear it's rusty gold head once again in the not-so-distant future. Speaking strictly for myself, I find a month of Sargassum preferable to a month of ugly pipe spewing black stuff all over the beach - but what do YOU think? I have posted a net poll on this topic at www.SPIonline.com so please feel free to stop by and express yourself.

There are five (5) ways to submit your questions/comments for future Ask Sandy columns: In person; by phone (761-6222) or fax (761-8930); the US Postal System (box 2694,spi,78597) and E-mail: (sandyfeet@unlitter.com). Visit my web-site (http://spionline.com/) for tips on sandcastling, contest info, recent Ask Sandy columns, and my reviews of local businesses.

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