Vacationers in northwest France are being warned to stay away from beaches, which are growing a bumper crop of a seaweed that releases a potentially toxic gas. The culprit: Up-stream releases of manure from intensive farming that overload the near-shore waters with nitrates.
The seaweed (sea lettuce, Ulva lactuca) must be removed within 48 hours of washing ashore — because as it rots, it releases so much hydrogen sulfide that swimmers and strollers are endangered. The French ministry for health and the environment has warned visitors to avoid areas with overgrowth, and told workers scooping up the seaweed that they must wear monitors to alert them they have entered especially toxic pockets and must clear out within minutes.
The potentially toxic weed shows up every year in Brittany, but this year’s overgrowth is at least half again the size of last year’s, according to coverage in the The Telegraph and Radio France International.
The pressure group France Nature Environnement is running a campaign to raise awareness of the slime attack. It pins responsibility for it on concentrated swine and poultry farming: Brittany raises half of the pigs and chickens grown in France. According to the group, the manure from those farms is as much would be produced by 50 million people.
When farm effluent washes downstream in the United States, it creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico — but that zone is offshore and never seems to get much attention. In France, in contrast, the algae deposits are cutting deeply into tourism, one of the area’s economic engines.
Predictably, the issue has been politicized. President Sarkozy, who’s up for re-election, jumped in two weeks ago to defend farming, even though his government last year launched an algae-reduction plan that ascribes responsibility to farm effluent. On a visit to Brittany, he dismissed campaigners against industrial farming as “fundamentalists” (intégristes), called farmers the “first victims,” and said they were “not responsible for economic decisions made a long time ago” (…ne sont pas coupables de choix économiques qui ont été faits il y a bien longtemps).
The government’s interim proposal is to build additional plants to process the seaweed for biogas. Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry has proposed relaxing regulations on agricultural spraying of manure from pig farms, an action likely to make nitrate concentrations — and the seaweed blooms — even worse.
For more, here’s a BBC video with construction equipment removing mountains of seaweed, and one from France2.fr on Sarkozy’s speech. (I can’t find embed codes on those sites; if you spot them, let me know in the comments.)
Update: Constant reader Pat Gardiner points out that in 2009, a smaller-volume overgrowth of the same seaweed was suspected in the death of a horse that was ridden down a slimed beach, the collapse of its rider, and the subsequent death of a truck driver who was transporting loads of the weed away from the beach.
Update 2: The Guardian reports that 31 wild boar have been found dead on algae-strewn beaches; a local police official says, “They were not [otherwise] sick and they did not drown.” And Le Monde on its front page scolds the Sarkozy government for its “unbearable denial” (l’insupportable déni) of the obvious:
Lorsque les faits sont importuns, il suffit de mettre en doute leur existence… Les faits sont simples : il s’agit de la responsabilité des effluents agricoles dans la prolifération des algues vertes qui défigurent le littoral breton depuis plus de trente ans et qui reviennent au centre de l’attention avec la découverte, mardi 26 juillet, de plusieurs sangliers morts sur une plage souillée des Côtes-d’Armor. Les chercheurs compétents ne doutent pas du rapport de cause à effet entre pratiques agricoles et prolifération d’algues vertes… Il est possible de nier les lois de la nature: à court terme, c’est à peu de frais. Mais elles finissent toujours par se rappeler à nous.
When facts are annoying, just doubt their reality… The facts are simple: Farm effluents are responsible for the proliferation of seaweed that has disfigured Brittany’s coast for more than 30 years and that has returned to attention because of the July 26 discovery of many dead wild boar on a littered Côtes-d’Armor beach. Competent researchers are confident of the link between agricultural practices and the seaweed bloom… It’s possible to deny the laws of Nature in the short term without great expense. But the bill will always come due.