Flesh-Eating Seaweed Blobs Are Overtaking Florida's Beaches

These microalgae are exactly as yucky as you think they are.

Remember that several thousand mile-wide sargassum blob heading right towards the shores of Florida? It has an official name, the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, and it's been steadily taking shore on Florida beaches in recent weeks. And guess what else? The massive load of microalgae is not just filled with some mild irritants as was initially predicted. No, that ooey gooey glob of ocean lettuce is also filled with a strain of flesh-eating bacteria.

And no, I'm not speaking in hyperbole. Vibrio vulnificus is the strain of bacteria, and it is sticking to plastic particles in the ocean that are being netted into the seaweed blob.

"Our lab work showed that these Vibrio are extremely aggressive and can seek out and stick to plastic within minutes,” Dr. Tracy Mincer, an assistant professor of biology at FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, told People this week. Mincer is also the lead author of the paper identifying the bacteria in the sargassum.

"Another interesting thing we discovered is a set of genes called 'zot' genes, which causes leaky gut syndrome. 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 as nitrogen and phosphate that could stimulate sargassum growth and other surrounding organisms."

To break that down for others like me, who are byproducts of Florida's disastrously underfunded public school system: Fish are eating flesh-eating bacteria-infected plastic, violently pooing, and the nutrients in the poo are fertilizing the seaweed blob, contributing to the growth of even more seaweed. The bacteria has pathogenic potential; it can cause disease.

While there has been flesh-eating bacteria in the ocean for a while (forever) and this is not the first time seaweed has arrived on shore carrying the flesh-eating bacteria, we're still in relatively new territory with this sargassum bloom. The issue is that the bacteria is becoming more aggressive and has the potential to pose significant risk to humans.

"This is not a new bacteria, but it's a new aggressive ability for this bacteria to attach onto plastic and to be in our sargassum," Dr. Tim Laird, the chief medical officer with Health First Medical Group, told Fox 35. "This infection can be aggressive, and that's when we call it the so-called flesh-eating bacteria."

According to the CDC, most humans are exposed to Vibrio by eating raw or undercooked meat. But open wounds coming in contact with the bacteria can also cause a flesh-eating infection caused by necrotizing fasciitis. That infection can be severe enough to cause amputation or death. The CDC reports that one in five people who contract the infection die. The CDC says signs of the infection include:

  • Watery diarrhea, often accompanied by stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever
  • For bloodstream infection: fever, chills, dangerously low blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions
  • For wound infection, which may spread to the rest of the body: fever, redness, pain, swelling, warmth, discoloration, and discharge (leaking fluids).

To reduce the risk of contracting the infection, the CDC advises to avoid getting in saltwater or brackish water if you have any open wounds on your skin, including from a recent surgery, piercing, or tattoo. This includes even just wading your ankles in the water. You can read the full advisory about the infection and risks over on the CDC website.

"Flesh-eating bacteria – I don't know what it is but I'm afraid of it so I'm not going to take a chance on it," a Florida woman named Maria Sanchez who was walking near the beach, told Fox 35. That's a pretty smart approach for anyone planning on heading to the beach where the sargassum is washing up on shore. You can find more information about how the sargassum will affect Florida beaches from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt is expected to make its heaviest landfall in June and July.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.