Most people were already aware of the 5,000-mile long sargassum bloom making its way toward Florida — and possibly Alabama — beaches, but thanks to a new study, there’s more to be concerned about than just the stench which accompanies the bloom.
Florida Atlantic University has released a study which found that sargassum bloom contains both the Vibrio bacteria and plastic marine debris, creating what the study’s authors called a “perfect pathogen storm” with significant health risks to both humans and marine life.
The Vibrio bacteria, frequently referred to as the “flesh-eating” bacteria, can cause life-threatening illnesses from seafood consumption, as well as disease and death from open wound infections, according to the report.
Not only can the Vibrio bacteria live within the sargassum, however, it also appears to be able to attach itself to plastic marine debris.
“Plastic is a new element that’s been introduced into marine environments and has only been around for about 50 years,” said Dr. Tracy Mincer, corresponding lead author and an assistant professor of biology at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College.
“Our lab work showed that these Vibrio are extremely aggressive and can seek out and stick to plastic within minutes,” Mincer said. “We also found that there are attachment factors that microbes use to stick to plastics, and it is the same kind of mechanism that pathogens use.”
The 5,000-mile wide, 11-ton bloom — the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt — is expected to impact Florida’s eastern coast, with some of it making its way into the northern Gulf of Mexico.
It’s the second-largest sargassum bloom ever recorded, according to FAU researcher Brian LaPointe.
“It’s incredible,” LaPointe said in mid-March. “What we’re seeing in the satellite imagery does not bode well for a clean beach year.”
The new dangers found in the FAU study add to the risks already associated with sargassum, chiefly the risk to people with respiratory problems stemming from the release of hydrogen sulfide, which gives the sargassum it’s unpleasant odor.
If or how much the sargassum bloom will impact the Alabama coast remains to be seen. Mendel Graeber at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab told AL.com in March that major storm, currents and other factors will impact the sargassum as it moves into the Gulf.
“There’s a chance that some of it will end up washing up on our beaches, but at this point, we can’t really predict that,” Graeber said.
Meanwhile, in an interview with WEAR, Mincer said the sargassum becomes more of a threat as it dries after reaching the shore, with the Vibrio bacteria growth increasing.
“If you handle this seaweed, it’s a good idea to wash your hands,” Mincer said, “and if you’re going to be doing a lot of it, wear gloves, and if you have an open cut or something stay away from it.”
Mincer also noted that the Vibrio bacteria is easily treated with antibiotics.
“They’ve (the vibrio bacteria) never seen antibiotics before,” he said, “and so they have hardly any antibiotic resistance genes at all. So, they haven’t adapted to that at all,”