I am seeing red.
And shades of hot pink along the shoreline and in shallow pockets along the marsh that edges Felix Neck. Sound the alarm, because this sighting is a true red scare for those in the know.
Sengekontacket Pond just can’t get a break. This beloved body of water has been in the news of late with regard to the challenges facing it and other Island ponds. The threats to water quality have been well documented: high nutrients causing algae blooms and low oxygen, elevated bacterial counts closing shellfish beds, increased temperature and decreased wildlife and fisheries.
Now there is something else for beach and pond lovers to worry about.
Heterosiphonia Japonica is the newest concern for those that care about the integrity and health of our ponds and ocean. Heterosiphonia Japonica is a red filamentous algae that has been wreaking havoc along our northeastern coast and across the waters in Europe. This algae is native to Asia and was likely brought over to the Atlantic Ocean in ships’ ballast water.
Found in Europe in 1984, it came across to our side of the big pond in due time and was identified in Rhode Island in 2009. It hasn’t taken long for it to move up the shore and it is now found at least north to Maine and likely has crept further along. However, it was only recently that it has been positively identified on Martha’s Vineyard.
No good can come from this red menace. It is bad for the pond, its wildlife, fisheries, other plants, property values, and even our economy, since it has the power to make beaches almost unusable. Heterosiphonia grows in large clumps and can suffocate eelgrass beds and smother oyster beds by inhibiting their ability to filter water. It reproduces vegetatively, meaning a piece can break off and become its own living, growing organism. It is like a real-life version of a bad science fiction movie creature — the Thing and the Blob rolled into one.
And it takes over fast. Consider that in Norway this seaweed spread 500 miles in less than five years and accounts for 90 per cent of the biomass in some heavily-affected areas. Heterosiphonia can grow rapidly in both warm and cold weather.
Large rafts of this algae can paint the town (beaches) red. Although it is not a health threat (as far as is known), it is an environmental one. Communities up on the north shore of Massachusetts didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for this algae, but suffered the effects of its arrival nonetheless, as it washed up on the beaches, dried, then rotted, and caused the most putrid of odors, making the beaches unusable. Lobstermen in Maine have also reported it fouling their pots and gear.
It is no surprise that a red flag has gone up for scientists and beach managers alike. No clear method for dealing with this invasive seaweed has been found. It is distasteful not only aesthetically but apparently literally as well. Very few creatures will consume it, excepting sea urchins, whose numbers aren’t large enough to dispose of this wandering weed.
Destructive, durable and disgusting; clearly all of us are hoping for a happy ending to this real-life 3D horror show, but so far we are woefully limited in our ability to deal with the attack of this alien. This menace is no red herring. On the contrary, it may constitute a real threat to our herring and other fish and wildlife. If we don’t raise a stink about it now, we’ll find that Heterosiphonia is more than willing to do that for us later.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.