Over the past few days, news has gotten more serious about the “blob” of seaweed approaching Florida on its Atlantic Coast. Sources like NBC 6 of South Florida report “high amounts” of Flesh-Eating Bacteria in the Sargassum seaweed that could seriously endanger all creatures that come into contact with it. Here are the ins and outs of what’s being reported and what it means.
What is Sargassum seaweed?
Sargassum seaweed is large brown algae seaweed that floats in big blobs together on the surface of the ocean. It carries an unpleasant rotten egg-like odor and has previously washed up on Florida shores in smaller batches. Usually, the seaweed itself cannot harm humans, but the tiny organisms living inside of it can irritate the skin, causing rashes and blisters.
Why is this such a big problem?
The current mass, while currently shrinking, is very, very large – currently 5000 miles long. The Florida Atlantic University discovered that this seaweed “can interact with plastic debris in the ocean and deadly Vibrio bacteria to create the perfect ‘pathogen storm’ for beachgoers.” In combination, this could mean health risks for both ocean life and humans.
What is Vibrio bacteria?
Vibrio bacteria is the main cause of human death from the marine environment. NBC 6 notes that, “Vibrio vulnificus is a flesh-eating bacteria that can cause life-threatening illness from seafood consumption, as well as contact to open wounds.” While rare, last year saw an increase after Hurricane Ian, especially thriving in warm standing water. If the bacteria gets into a sea creature later consumed raw by a human, this also can be potentially fatal.
The “flesh-eating Vibrio bacteria is colonizing plastic debris in the warm ocean water.” The bacteria and the microplastic stick very well together.
What does an expert have to say?
The bacteria theoretically leaks into the bloodstream and seeks to get into the gut. It sticks to the intestines, causing infection. NBC 6 quotes Tracy Mincer, Ph.D., corresponding lead author and an assistant professor of biology at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College.
For instance, if a fish eats a piece of plastic and gets infected by this Vibrio, which then results in a leaky gut and diarrhea, it’s going to release waste nutrients such nitrogen and phosphate that could stimulate Sargassum growth and other surrounding organisms…I don’t think at this point, anyone has really considered these microbes and their capability to cause infections. We really want to make the public aware of these associated risks. In particular, caution should be exercised regarding the harvest and processing of Sargassum biomass until the risks are explored more thoroughly.
As the bacteria feeds on plant and animal hosts, contact with Sargassum and plastic marine debris can be dangerous for humans.
What’re the risks?
Here’s information straight from the CDC: When ingested, Vibrio bacteria can cause watery diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. It is responsible for most seafood related deaths. Vibrio vulnificus infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which the flesh around an open wound dies. The results can be life threatening if ingested or by coming into contact with it.
The Florida’s department of health notes that those with weakened immune systems and liver problems are at a high risk of infection.
Stay safe out there beachgoers!