Top: Gulf of Mexico currents and wind direction. Middle: Jellyfish on the beach. Bottom: Students volunteer to pick up trash on the beach. Photo credits: Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Rudolph Rosen, Corpus Christi Caller-Times
The connection between seaweed, jellyfish, and beach trash in Texas
Beachgoers in Texas often remember encounters with seaweed, jellyfish, and beach trash. Believe it or not, all three are frequent features of Gulf coast beaches for the same reason. All are carried along by Gulf of Mexico currents and winds that push them onto Texas beaches.
Massive currents swirl about in the giant basin that is the Gulf. Like when you stir liquid contents in a big bowl, the water in the Gulf moves in a definite direction. This water movement is called a current, and it carries along with it whatever floats in the water. Currents in the Gulf move toward Texas both from the north and south. The currents combine with winds that blow toward Texas. This helps push animal passengers as well as any floating trash or seaweed onto our beaches.
There are times Texas’ beaches may contain a large amount of Sargassum, a brown seaweed. While it may look yucky, this seaweed actually helps build up the beach by acting to hold sand in place. Jellyfish are another passenger in the currents’ continuous journey because they are free floating animals. While some species of jellyfish can give swimmers an unpleasant sting, trash gives everyone an unpleasant experience.
Jellyfish and seaweed are a natural part of the Gulf ecosystem, while the trash is not. Where does trash come from? It comes from all over the Gulf, from other states, from Mexico, from storm sewers that empty into the Gulf, and from the rivers draining into the Gulf, such as the Mississippi River. It comes from ships and oil and gas platforms far out in Gulf waters. It floats northward to Texas from Mexico, and southward from Louisiana. The amount of trash that washes to shore is enormous. Sometimes sea turtles and other species that eat jellyfish mistake clear plastic bags or other trash in the water for food and eat the trash. This can cause injury or death as the plastic clogs up the animals’ stomachs and intestines.
Every year over 1,000 people volunteer and pick up over 150 tons of trash on Padre Island. Volunteers also clean up other beaches. When you go to the beach, remember to pick up your own trash. You may also want to join others at your favorite beach on volunteer clean-up days or just do it yourself.