Thick, woolly, fibrous red seaweed has piled up on Manchester's beaches in recent weeks, releasing a sulfuric stench as it rots, and leaving officials searching for a solution to oust the invasive weed.
Manchester's Department of Public Works has tried cleaning the clingy seaweed off the town's beaches, but to no avail, according to department director Steven Kenney.
"It's like the nemesis," Kenney said. "It's the guest that never left."
The seawood first hit Cape Ann and rose over Rockport's beaches earlier this month. There, work crews used machinery to remove the weeds from Front Beach, effectively clearing the beach after days of work.
Manchester public works staff have buried the seaweed, hauled it away for sale, and composted it on different occasions. Public works crews spent five 8-hour days shoveling the red seaweed at West Beach into dump trucks and hauling it away, a task that would have cost about $7500 if the town hired the job out, Kenney said. But, he said, "a week later, you'd never know we were there."
He said that, though the seaweed is not toxic to humans, when crews are up to their knees shoveling the red seaweed, trying to clean off the beaches, the smell in the air is unbearable — even with a proper uniform.
"It's to the point where you can't physically breathe the air. It hurts your eyes. It hurts your lungs," Kenney said.
The invasive seaweed so-called "Heterosiphonia japonica," is a weed that scientists believe came here via Japanese boats. Japanese boatmen may have used the seaweed as a ballast to stabilize their boats on trips to the U.S.'s East Coast.
David Pierce, deputy director of the state's Division of Marine Fisheries, said nothing has been proven about the plants' arrival here.
"Why is it appearing now, Gloucester to Cape Cod Canal? All speculation," Pierce said. "It has not been studied. Division of Marine Fisheries does not have authority over the seaweed except to try to understand why it is appearing now."
The red seaweed, when it comes to shore, devours most of the nutrients in the waters around it, then blankets itself over everything below it, enveloping and smothering local plants and organisms, Kenney said.
But, as nutrient rich as the red seaweed is, farmers will not buy it up to use as a crop fertilizer, like they will with the native seaweed. The seaweed is too clumpy, smelly and heavy for that kind of use, farmers say.
Manchester officials spent money and time on removing the invasive weed, but decided weeks ago to stop sending public works crews to haul away and burry seaweed that will continuously pile up regardless of efforts, according to Kenney.
He said he expects the red seaweed to haunt beaches throughout the summer and into next year, unless officials find its equivalent of kryptonite.
Thomas Kehoe, who chairs Manchester's Board of Selectmen, said he would like to see a regional solution for North Shore towns. But, after speaking with scientists, the selectmen decided to pause their battle against the red seaweed until they can regroup, gather information and form an efficient and effective plan.
"We could spend thousands of dollars a week cleaning the beach, then we would come back the next week and start from point zero all over again," Kehoe said.
Officials are speculating that beach tourism rates could drop, but Kehoe said some of Manchester's beaches, like Singing Beach, have not been attacked by the powerful weed. There have also been reports to date of any volume of the seaweed hitting Gloucester.
Still, Kehoe said this is a new and huge problem for the town.
"I'm always wondering is this all we're going to see? Is it going to come to shore in greater amounts? Is it going to come to shore in smaller amounts?," Kehoe said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.