Algarve beaches again hit by invasive seaweed
Local councils and environmentalists are concerned about the huge amounts of seaweed washing up at Algarve beaches
Beaches in the Western Algarve have been blighted this month by large amounts of the Rugulopterix okamurae seaweed, an invasive species originally from the seas of Korea and Japan.
The species spread to Europe at the start of the 21st century, stuck to the hulls of ships and in ballast waters. It was first detected in Portugal in 2019 and has been washing up along Algarvian shores more and more frequently since then, explains Rui Santos, head of the research group in charge of Marine Plant Ecology at the University of Algarve’s Centre of Sea Sciences (CCMar).
However, this seaweed ‘invasion’ has intensified this year and some beaches have been particularly affected, such as Praia do Carvoeiro, where local authorities struggled to remove the seaweed in time for the town’s hugely popular Black & White party. In the end, barriers were placed along to beach to prevent revellers from coming close to the shoreline which was still covered in seaweed.
Seaside businesses have been seriously affected, as beachgoers tend to stay away from beaches where they have to walk over piles of seaweed to reach the equally uninviting waters.
Reports of sightings of this invasive seaweed are increasing every year, according to the ‘Algas na Praia’ (Algae on the Beach) project carried out by the University of the Algarve, which is awaiting approval for a financing programme to study how the seaweed could be put to use.
As Rui Santos explained, “more information is needed” about the species in order to respond to this issue.
Until then, local councils are being left with no choice but to take matters into their own hands and dispose of the seaweed.
It is also an environmental issue which experts believe could affect marine ecosystems, biodiversity and the environmental quality of beaches.
Fishermen in the Western Algarve are also feeling the effects of the invasive species, complaining that the algae “gets stuck in fishing nets and keeps fish away”. The seaweed is also keeping octopus populations away from the coast, they say.
As well as Carvoeiro, in recent years Praia da Rocha and Prainha, both in Portimão, have also been affected by the invasive species.
Lagos has also seen its beaches affected, namely Praia da Batata, Dona Ana and Camilo, with the seaweed tainting what is usually the picturesque beach scenery that the Algarve is famous for.
While it is impossible to stop the seaweed from reaching Algarvian waters, there may be ways to alert beachgoers and local authorities “when there is a higher chance of the seaweed washing up on beaches”, so that it can be removed and used somehow, Rui Santos said, adding that “more research is still needed”.
Algarve municipalities have been removing and collecting the seaweed, unsure of what to do with it, given that the benefits and potential of the species for medicinal, agricultural, cosmetic or energy uses are still unknown.
However, the NUTRISAFE project is dedicated precisely to creating a new food supplement made out of the active components of the algae, with anti-inflammatory benefits and offering vascular and pulmonary protection.
High costs for local councils
Municipalities affected by the seaweed invasion are struggling to deal with this issue on their own, which forces them to hire external entities.
Lagoa, Portimão and Lagos – the three boroughs which have been most affected so far – do not receive any kind of regional or national support for these initiatives and are calling on the government for help, as they warn the region’s tourism sector could end up seriously affected by the phenomenon. The Fundo Ambiental (Environmental Fund) could be a financing solution for the issue, say local councils.
So far in machinery alone, Lagoa council has spent around €10,000 to remove the seaweed, which does not cover the total costs as it remains to be decided where the algae will be disposed of, explained Lagoa councillor Mário Guerreiro. Disposing of them in a landfill will cost €80 per tonne, meaning a total cost of around €24,000.
Around 300 tonnes of seaweed have already been removed from Praia do Carvoeiro from this latest invasion alone. In September 2022, 400 tonnes of algae were removed from that beach.
“If ever the Algarve loses its appeal as a holiday destination, the whole country will be affected. That is why we have been trying to call on the government to contribute both in terms of research and funding,” Mário Guerreiro said.
In Portimão, the council used five heavy vehicles and six trucks to remove the seaweed, representing an investment of around €10,000, as well as additional costs which have not been tallied yet, said Portimão deputy mayor Álvaro Bila.
“We will intervene whenever necessary; however, the shortage of labour is a big problem. The public tender process takes at least three months, and we cannot wait that long, with a seaweed problem on ‘stand-by’,” Bila said.
Portimão council is also questioning what it should do with the 15,000 cubic metres of seaweed it has removed from Praia da Rocha, with one of the possibilities being to distribute it amongst two companies which have offered to use it as fertiliser.
In Lagos, a €100,000 public tender has been launched for the borough’s seaweed removal efforts. However, an urgent tender (€49,680) has been launched in order to provide an immediate solution to the issue, Lagos councillor Luís Bandarra dos Reis told the Resident.
The collected seaweed will be taken to a private agricultural plot to be used as fertiliser, the council confirmed.
However, the councillor warned that this is an issue that is “here to stay” and that “we need to be prepared” for when these seaweed invasions occur again.
“An immediate response will be needed in order to protect tourism and the economy,” he said, adding that it will not be easy, since the “shortage of labour” is posing another big challenge.
Also, the fact that some of Lagos’ beaches are difficult to access, cranes and boats are needed to carry out the “complex operation”.
Like his fellow councillors, Luís Bandarra dos Reis believes that a solution for the future will be to “suck the algae” out of the sea before it even reaches the beaches.
Editor’s note: At the time of writing, the Resident confirmed there were no excessive amounts of algae on some of the beaches mentioned in this article, such as Carvoeiro and Praia da Rocha. The natural phenomenon is highly unpredictable, so it is virtually impossible to know when algae invasions will occur.
By BEATRIZ MAIO