Piles of Sargassum seaweed covered most of Trunk Bay beach last week.
Maho Bay beach was also affected with an influx of Sargassum.
NORTH SHORE — During what many residents are calling the worst infestation in memory, sargassum levels have grown so abundant in local waters, the weed recently began piling up on V.I. National Park beaches.
Sargassum is a weed which grows in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When certain weather patterns interact, the yellow-orange weed is “burped” out of the Sargasso Sea and carried by air and water currents through Atlantic and Caribbean waters.
While sargassum is not harmful or dangerous, some of the one million visitors to VINP were not thrilled to find their favorite beaches, including Trunk Bay and Maho Bay, blanketed in seaweed.
Last week, VINP officials began alerting visitors to the presence of sargassum. A notice was posted at http://www.nps.gov/viis/naturescience/sargassum.htm announcing that beaches were “heavily impacted by sargassum seaweed.”
“This naturally occurring event happens along the Gulf Stream and throughout the Caribbean,” according to the VINP on line notice. “The Sargassum is full of life and home to Sargassum shrimp, Plan-head filefish, crabs, turtles and seahorses. It is full of nutrients and used for fertilizer and building beach dunes.”
Those piles of sargassum that prompted the online announcement, however, were mostly washed out to sea in large swells by week’s end.
“The Sargassum will eventually wash back out to sea or decompose,” according to the VINP website. “As of 9 a.m. on December 11, 2014, about 80 percent of the Sargassum has washed out to sea with yesterday’s big swells. The rest has been washed up into the tree line or in isolated clumps.”
While most VINP beaches were largely clear of the weed by last weekend, officials were alerting Trunk Bay visitors that sargassum was present on the shoreline.
“It’s piling up everywhere,” said VINP Superintendent Brion FitzGerald. “From what I’ve been told, we’ve never had it this bad. It was worse three days ago and most of it washed out to sea with the big swells we had.”
“We were telling people before they came in at Trunk Bay that there is sargassum on the beach,” FitzGerald said. “We’re telling them that the beach has seaweed and if you don’t want to pay the user fee, there are other beaches. Our system is not set up for refunds, so we are telling people before they enter.”
While VINP does not have the manpower to clear all beaches of sargassum, the effort would be futile anyway, explained FitzGerald.
“We would never have the staff to clear off every single beach, that goes without saying,” he said. “Even if we could clear off every single beach, we don’t know that it wouldn’t be back tomorrow. It goes where it wants to go on its own and there’s really no way to predict it.”
“We had some lifeguards at Trunk Bay clearing some sargassum, but not the whole beach,” said the VINP Superintendent. “We only have a limited number of lifeguards and they are there to watch people.”
St. John is not the only island being affected by sargassum; the weed is present throughout the Caribbean and even in the Gulf of Mexico where it is impact the Texas coastline.
The presence of so much sargassum is also not a sign of things to come, FitzGerald added.
“This is not a sign that we’re going to have this occurrence every single year on St. John,” he said. “A few years ago it hit further south and this year it’s hitting us really hard. There are a lot of factors at play in the natural system.”
Although, VINP officials do not want to alarm any visitors, it is important to share accurate information, explained FitzGerald.
“The best thing to do is to share accurate information; that is our purpose,” FitzGerald said. “We have no idea what is going to be on the shoreline tomorrow. I hope it washes away and doesn’t come back.”