2018-08-09 / Front Page

City Looks at Seaweed Removal Methods

By James Merolla

Newport has seen new technologies in its harbor remove the plastic microfibers from laundry water washed into the bay as part of an international study. Technologies are also in place nearby, to clean the bay in a variety of other ways. Recently, Newporters have noticed the return of seaweed near and on the beaches. It comes and goes with the tides, but it has recently been thick and a bit rancid in several swimming and fishing areas.

“A clean beach is a priority but it is a difficult issue, battling Mother Nature,” City Manager Joe Nicholson told Newport This Week. “But we are hopeful that with all the new technology and innovation out there, we can find some semblance of a solution.”

The city has not had a method to scoop up tons of kelp, seaweed and other growths since its mechanical harvester stopped working in 2014. The $250,000 machine was first brought into use in 2009, worked several seasons, then suffered a series of breakdowns and repairs, making it both a source of pride and controversy, concurrently.

When it worked, it was showcased on the beach, scooping up tons of seaweed over the course of a beach season. When it repeatedly broke down, it became a symbol of governmental inefficiency. Each repair cost the city an estimated $20,000 to $50,000.

Nicholson said he became intrigued in searching for new technologies to alleviate the seaweed problem after watching a recent episode of “60 Minutes” that featured a New England company that was harvesting kelp and turning it into food, other products and a profit.

“I have, in the past, anecdotally heard that what we have is the thin, slimy hair-like stuff [that] is not conducive to being used for much of anything, because of its composition,” said Nicholson, who met on Aug. 8 with an unnamed proponent of a “blue economy,” using the oceans and their merits for industry, in Newport’s search for something innovative that could solve the problem.

The talk is especially topical on the eve of the new innovation hub that is soon expected to fill the former Sheffield School. The proposed hub, which has been talked about for years as a means to bring the city to the forefront of new industries and technologies to help the local economy, plans to lease to clients versed in ocean lab studies, among other related scientific boons.

“We have not run into a [viable] machine other than the usual tractor rake, which does a great job on the beach,” Nicholson said. “The problem is getting the fine stuff out of the water. The harvester was a long experiment that wasn’t bad, but just couldn’t keep up,” he said.

“Are we in a financial position to handle the task? The answer is yes. Is the task a difficult one? I would say yes, as well,” he added. “We are searching for the best solution.”

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