GALVESTON — A new project launched on East Beach this week aims to find a useful purpose for the seaweed that washes up on island beaches.
Texas A&M University at Galveston has begun constructing a group of 200-foot-long dunes on the west side of the park, just seaward of the bollards that mark the beach’s parking area.
The dunes have been constructed using sargassum, the seaweed that annually washes up on the shores of the island, as a building block. The bound and compacted sargassum has been dubbed “seabales” by the team conducting the project.
In the months to come, the group will watch how the dunes stand up compared to a dune made without the bales. The theory is that dunes with seaweed cores and planted with marsh grass on top will hold up better against erosion.
Traditionally, there have been two options for handling seaweed landings on the island: leave it where it lands or push it to the back of the beach.
Baling the seaweed seems to offer a happy medium: a way to move seaweed out of the way but also put it to work, rather than letting it sit more-or-less unused.
Each dune will be configured differently based on various ideas about what would offer the best protection against storms and high waters, said Robert Tyler, a recent TAMUG graduate helping oversee the project.
The project is the first of its kind, as far as the team can tell. Sargassum has been used to promote dune growth before, as have other types of plants, like Christmas trees. But no one has ever attempted to use seaweed as the type of core structure that a dune can grow around
If the seabale dunes do stand up this year, TAMUG hopes the project could to be expanded to include more sophisticated equipment.
“This is the first test-pilot dune, essentially, to see how this works out,” Tyler said.
Because this year is a pilot project, most of the dune-making has to be done manually.
At 8 a.m. Friday, Tyler and students Jake Sigren and Kevin Frost, headed out to East Beach to begin constructing the latest part of dunes.
After moving a fresh landing of sargassum into a pile, the team used pitchforks to load it into the baler — a machine that is usually used to compact things such as cardboard and rags. The seaweed is compacted, more is loaded and then compacted again. The bale is bound with twine and then taken out. It forms a rough 2-foot-by-2-foot cube that weighs more than 200 pounds, Tyler said.
The seabales are moved via tractor to the dune, where they are lined up and covered with sand. Each 200-foot dune has between 80 and 100 bales in it, Tyler said.
Creating the bales isn’t an exact science yet. The group has found it needs to use fresh, wet seaweed instead of dried-out plants, which tend to fall apart in the baler. But even wet bales don’t stay together very tightly, so the team tries to move the bales as little as possible once they’re in place.
“The company that provided us with the baler thought it was very interesting,” Tyler said. “So far the mechanical side has been really easy, the main difficulty is physical labor.”
Once the dunes are built, the team will plant various types of marsh grass on top of them. The hope is that the decomposing seaweed inside the dunes promotes growth in the plants, which in turn will grow roots that help stop erosion.
The dune project, which has been under development for more than a year, is sponsored jointly by the Texas General Land Office and Galveston’s Park Board of Trustees. Combined, the two groups have contributed more than $140,000 toward the pilot project through various sources of funding.