Galveston’s Seaweed: The Problem is The Solution

First impressions are often misleading.

Such was the case when our family took a short vacation to Galveston island off the Texas gulf coast. When we walked out to the beach from the resort where we were staying, we felt that the sand, though a very light beige with fine texture, was somewhat… dirty.

In addition, just on the edge of where the water meets the land, was a large pile of seaweed that spanned the entire length of the coast. It was at least knee-high, and as wide as I(Mr. AJ) am tall. It was a natural barrier, placed there by the season and the tide, that prevented us from setting up in that optimum distance where the water is close enough to enjoy and you can stay dry.

The Outsider’s Perception

Why wasn’t this removed? It was interfering with the tourism interests for every small and large business on the island. Surely, I thought, the city of Galveston should have recognized the potential economic downward spiral they were risking with this decision to not spend resources on the usability of its beaches.

I realized that Galveston is essentially a great hope of human triumph snatched away by what is often referred to as an act of God(the 1900 Galveston hurricane). Was the city treasury just that dry after the latest hurricane(Hurricane Ike) beat it into continued submission to the forces of nature?

My Descent into Cynicism

Admittedly, I am prone to over think things. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I saw as a failure on the part of the island city we spent money and time to visit in order to escape our responsibilities for a brief period of time. It was a failure on my part to allow this cynicism to seep in and affect my ability or willingness to enjoy our vacation. In truth, I was disappointed.

God Bless the Age of Information

A little time with Google goes a long way when searching for information. It turned out, that my impression was a mistake. What I saw as a flaw is the result of a decision that was carefully weighed for years before our recent arrival. A decision I wholeheartedly agreed with, believe in, and would have passionately supported in its early days. It immediately shifted my view of the inconvenience from what was previously an eyesore into a new, beautiful triumph of a community.

Bird-on-Mountain-of-SeaweedThe decision to leave the seaweed that is gifted by the seasons and gulf tides was a stroke of genius. It is a decision that would never have passed in most modern communities in the United States.

The dunes that border the land side of the beaches are protected by state law. They prevent erosion, and possibly more importantly, they serve as a small buffer from an ocean that is known to have occasional severe mood swings.

Dune_path_to_BeachSome of you may not know that seaweed’s nitrogen-carbon composition is perfectly balanced in that it breaks down as compost with no inputs required. In addition, it has been drifting from the Sargasso Sea through the Gulf of Mexico which is full of nutrient rich seawater. (so much so, that the Sargassum actually grows by almost 100% by the time it reaches shore) The nutrients in the water are important when considering the benefit of the seaweed.

Seaweed draws an extraordinary wealth of mineral elements from the sea that can account for up to 36% of its dry mass. The mineral macronutrients include sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chlorine, sulfur and phosphorus; the micronutrients include iodine, iron, zinc, copper, selenium, molybdenum, fluoride, manganese, boron, nickel and cobalt.

As it begins to break down, it becomes a haven for insects and other small invertebrates. This attracts birds, who eat the small invertebrates, and in turn contribute to the nitrogen value of what will soon become decomposed organic material, gifted to the island by the sea and the seasons.

Eventually, it becomes finished compost with wonderful water-holding capacity, teeming with microscopic life, nourished by the minerals in the sea water. Compost is commonly known to fertilize, or kick-start the soil biology in a garden, but what is often less talked about is its erosion resistance.

A pile of composted seaweed does not move in natural forces. Fine sand particles that find their way into the compost (wind is a primary mover here) are held in place as they fall into the pockets of the textured material. If you have read this blog before, you no doubt recognize that I love talking about natural systems and their seemingly perfect balance, as designed by God. I also acknowledge that humans have a role in this, and that we are to manage, not “dominate,” the earth. In fact, there are many “pristine” so-called wild places that are actually the result of responsible human management of existing natural systems.

The logical thing to do was to adapt to its being there, and enjoy ourselves.

Appreciating the Landscape

It looks like a nuisance at first glance, but like most natural “problem” landscapes, all it takes is a slight perspective shift in order to see nature’s beauty.

How about a 90 degree shift…

Sargassum_Color_PaletteFrom the ocean side, it looks like a big wall of seaweed. From the land side, it looks like a big wall of seaweed. But, when you look down the coastline from the middle of the sargassum line, you get an interesting sight. Sargassum can range in color from olive green to dark brown. From this view, you can see just how broadly that color spectrum can be expressed.

Okay, so I can appreciate how it looks. It adds texture to the landscape, increases the local bird population (which can be fun to watch), and prevents the beach from eroding away.

How does it feel?

To be honest, it’s not pleasant to step on, but it’s not unpleasant, either. It’s not pleasant only because it is unfamiliar and “wild.” The peak in the center of the row is easily compacted by stepping on it a few times, as is evidenced in the photograph above, of the bird atop the mound. In a nutshell, it feels like old style AstroTurf. So, really, even though it does create a tangible barrier from the dry sand to the ocean, it is not a formidable one. Teenie Tiny had no issue stepping on it through the step-created gap to get to the excitement of the ocean. You could even use it to build more robust sandcastles. (just don’t take it from the dry dunes inland from the fresh row of seaweed unless you like risking legal fines)

Does it smell?

If you read about it online, people often refer to it as “stinky seaweed.” I believe that this is one situation in which timing is everything. As it continues to stay in place over the course of summer (remember, this is Texas.. summer = very hot), and as it continues to break down, the presence of oxygen in the center steadily decreases. Composting – oxygen = anaerobic compost (which is unpleasant smelling, as the nutrient is converted to gases, including methane).

That having been said, when we were there, it did not smell. It wasn’t even “unpleasant smelling”. You couldn’t distinguish it from the ocean in terms of aroma, assuming it has one. I didn’t bend down to get my schnozola close in an effort to catch a good, strong whiff of the stuff, but as far as I could tell, I couldn’t tell. My advice if you want to visit the gulf coasts known for having seaweed is to go in the early to mid Spring.

The Takeaway

Don’t be like me. Don’t look at an inconvenience and mull it over trying to figure out the negative source(s) of the “problem.” Look at it from multiple angles, and curiously ask, “why?” You never know. In many situations in life, like the seaweed in Galveston

The Problem is The Solution

Please remember to share this, and leave your comments below. Cheers!


5 thoughts on “Galveston’s Seaweed: The Problem is The Solution

  1. Pingback: Galveston's Seaweed: The Problem is The Solution

  2. I’ve lived here all my life…and I’ve never seen it as bad and disgusting as it is today. They need to get it off the beaches…. if they want to…. take it to a compost plant and let them do their thing … to speed up the natural order of things….. BUT it stinks…. and I would never bring a guest to my state to Galveston in it’s present condition….. COME ON…. there has got to be something done if you want to continue attracting tourist. I was just there today… and I was embarrassed !!! and ashamed of Galveston !!!


    1. When natural systems do not meet our expectations, which of the two is more likely to be at fault? It isn’t wise to build a house below sea level near the ocean. Maybe there are other “rules of thumb” we should be picking up on here. Just something to consider. I appreciate your sharing your frustrations.


  3. Gaylynn

    I was in Galveston this past weekend and I stayed in a house in the East End Historic district. I was disappointed in the smelly, seaweed mess. I drove down the seawall to the Kroger on Saturday morning and wanted to roll down my windows, the air was awful due to the seaweed. I had to roll my windows back up. I also intended on getting my walking exercise on the seawall. It was about 8 blocks from the house. As I approached, it started to smell, so I turned around and went back and just walked through the neighborhood. On Sunday, we went to Fish Tails across from Pleasure Pier and sat on the patio and piles of seaweed were coating the beach around there. The smell was really unpleasant. Yesterday, we tried to go to East Beach and there were the long barriers of seaweed between the water and the sand….there was no way I was going to walk across that stuff to get in the water, plus I could see alot floating around in the shallow water. We didn’t stay long, it was ugly and smelly, even though the wind was blowing hard. If the tourists don’t come because the beach sucks, it hurts every other business in Galveston. They need to move it from the main beach areas. We were directly in front of the pavilion on East Beach, they need to move it away. I understand it is good for the environment, but move it away from the main areas during peak season, it’s disgusting. Galveston could probably learn some things from the Pensacola Beach or other about keeping the beach nice and clean. A side note —- not only was the seaweed disgusting on East Beach, so were the port-o-pots, the were full to the brim and nasty…it was 12:30 p.m. in the afternoon and there wasn’t very many people on the beach —- they had obviously been sitting there awhile. I won’t be going to the beach again any time soon……Galveston as a whole will suffer because they can’t find a way to manage this. If it’s ugly and smelly, people will be afraid to get near it.


  4. In response to the comments about this year being especially bad, you are right. The account I’ve written is based on my own experience during our trip in the spring, before the second wave hit the shores in June.

    Both the explanation and the reason why you should still appreciate it, rather than hate it, have been reported by Texas Monthly in the following article: Look What the Tide Dragged In | Texas Monthly
    I appreciate your feedback and sharing your thoughts. I understand that it can often be frustrating when money has been saved over time, and plans have been drawn out months in advance only to find that your plans don’t match up with the natural course of things. I admit, that if I had been in your situation, I would have been more frustrated than I was, and it might have been a greater challenge for me to find the positive perspective.

    However, in light of understanding the ecological benefit, I would at this point chalk it up to an unfortunate circumstance. Is it more important that I enjoy the beach now, or is it more important that the beach is maintained for the long term so that it can be appreciated by future generations? Personally, I would rather ensure its maintenance for future generations than glean immediate benefits to its detriment. It was not created for economic benefit, therefore, it is not proper to exploit it for that cause.
    I appreciate that views may differ, however this blog is through the lens of the experience and perspectives of my family. My hope is that this might help to widen the perspective of the world around you and ask more fundamental questions than merely how our culture, a man-made impermanent idea, is negatively affected by the systems put in place by our Creator.
    Be well. – Mr. AJ


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