by Stephen Meno
Though you may have thought the sweltering heat was bad enough, our summer days at the beach may be accompanied by an odorous species of seaweed that resembles wet, matted hair called Heterosiphonia japonica. Native to Japan, this invasive plant is threatening beach ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and tourism revenues all over New England.
While it has troubled Massachusetts beaches for the past two summers, locals say this year’s bloom is out of control. Because of its ability to grow in either warm or cold water and multiply when cut, its rapid spread is covering much of the sea surface and blocking sunlight from native varieties of seaweed. Furthermore, it is destroying marine habitats and killing food sources for many different sea animals.
As for humans, the seaweed is washing up in large amounts on shores, scaring away beachgoers. And, it’s also hurting fishermen’s pockets by clogging lobster cages. Everything from tractors to compost heaps have been used to keep the relentless algae at bay, but many are still nervous that these efforts are not enough. If this wasn’t bad enough, when the seaweed dries during the removal process, it emits an unbearable odor.
This pesky plant was first identified in the western Atlantic in 2009 off the coast of Rhode Island by a vacationing biologist. Since that time, Heterosiphonia japonica has made its way north to the southern Gulf of Maine and west all along Long Island Sound, with Massachusetts now bearing the brunt of the mess. And while several major ocean currents are currently keeping the seaweed at bay, within a few years, it could extend from Newfoundland all the way down to Florida.
So how did this terrible seaweed make its way from the western Pacific? Experts believe that ships that take seawater into their hulls to stay buoyant must have also inadvertently taken in some Heterosiphonia japonica, which was later released into the Atlantic.
Europeans dealt with the same situation in the 1980s, which killed off numerous native species from Scandinavia to Italy. So far, sea urchins are the only known consumer of the plant, and scientists aren’t optimistic that they will be enough to rid us of this invasion. While researchers at Northeastern University Marine Science Center are conducting studies and monitoring Heterosiphonia’s spread, government intervention (and dollars) will be needed to prevent the complete ecological reconfiguration of the Eastern Seaboard.
Image courtesy of The Boston Globe.